Boko Haram seizes Chibok, hometown of kidnapped schoolgirls

Kano (Nigeria) (AFP) - Boko Haram has seized the northeastern Nigerian town of Chibok, from where 276 girls were kidnapped more than six months ago and which the government vowed to secure after the mass abduction.

The April 14 kidnapping in the impoverished town in southern Borno state brought unprecedented global attention to the armed Islamist group's brutal five-year uprising.

Heads of state and top celebrities joined a viral social media campaign calling for the rescue of the seized, mostly Christian, schoolgirls, 219 of whom are still being held.

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has repeatedly promised to rescue the schoolgirls, including on Tuesday when he launched his bid for a second term in office ahead of February 14 polls.

In a July meeting in the capital Abuja with those affected by the kidnapping, Jonathan and top military brass also pledged to provide better security for the town.

But the violence in the northeast has intensified since, with Boko Haram reportedly seizing more than two dozens towns and Nigeria's security forces reportedly absent in many areas.

On Friday night, Boko Haram was suspected of killing six people, including three police officers, in a suicide car bomb attack at a filling station in north Nigeria's biggest city, Kano.

The attack and the fall of Chibok, which has symbolic significance, will raise fresh doubts about the Nigerian government's ability to end the violence abduction -- and its whole approach to the abduction.

"For Chibok to have fallen, after everything that has happened, it just underscores the mess we are in," Emman Usman Shehu, a regular on the Bring Back Our Girls protest marches in Abuja, told AFP.

"Chibok is also symbolic for Boko Haram. It should have been obvious to everyone that Boko Haram was going to target Chibok. It shows a lack of compassion, a lack of empathy and a lack of concern."

- 'They are in control' -

"Chibok was taken by Boko Haram. They are in control," said Enoch Mark, a Christian pastor whose daughter and niece are among the hostages being held.

Mark and the senator for southern Borno, Ali Ndume, said the militants attacked at about 4:00 pm (1500 GMT) on Thursday, destroying communications masts and forcing residents to flee.

Ndume said that he had received calls from fleeing residents about the attack that the town "was now under their (Boko Haram) control".

"There is no telephone service now in Chibok, which is why it took time before the reports reached me," he added.

Mark said the attack on the town appeared to come after Boko Haram overran the towns of Hong and Gombi in neighbouring Adamawa state following the group's ouster from the commercial hub of Mubi.

Boko Haram invaded the two towns after vigilantes and hunters armed with home-made guns, bows and arrows, machetes, clubs and spears forced them out of Mubi, residents said late Thursday.

The militants had previously renamed the town Madinatul Islam or "City of Islam" in Arabic and began administering their strict version of Sharia, including amputations for suspected thieves.

Gombi is 145 kilometres (90 miles) by road from Chibok.

Mark said Chibok residents, many of whom had stayed hoping for their daughters' return, fled when the shooting started and telecom towers were destroyed by rocket-propelled grenades.

- Inside information? -

At the July meeting with Jonathan, Chibok community leaders stressed that aside from the trauma of the mass kidnapping, locals remained in daily fear of attack and pleaded for more security.

Ayuba Chibok, whose niece is among the hostages, said at the time that people told the head of state that they "were tired of sleeping in the bushes".

Chibok elders told AFP in a series of phone calls in recent months that security had deteriorated, despite the promises made at the meeting.

A senior rescue worker warned late last month that Chibok's fall was imminent.

Pogo Bitrus, chairman of the elders forum in Chibok, also confirmed the attack but said Boko Haram may have had inside information about security in the town.

The vigilantes' leader had left for Maiduguri to procure new cartridges for his men's shotguns after supplies ran low, he said.

"He was due to come today, so it looks like they knew what was happening," he said by telephone from Abuja, adding that there was no word on casualties.

"Chibok is now a ghost town with only Boko Haram in control."

But Bitrus said the vigilantes were preparing for a counter-attack and troops had been deployed from Damboa, 36.5 kilometres away by road to the northwest.