Kano (Nigeria) (AFP) - Boko Haram fighters have surrounded the northeast Nigerian city of Maiduguri and are preparing an imminent takeover, an influential regional group claimed on Thursday, calling for military reinforcements.
The warning from the Borno Elders Forum, made up of retired senior civilian and military officials, comes after the United States warned of an attack on the city and analysts said the government risked losing control of the region.
But Nigeria's military described the elders' warning as "alarmist", saying it was "clearly intended to cause panic in the city and the nation".
Maiduguri has special significance for Boko Haram. It was where the heavily armed Islamist group was founded as an anti-corruption movement in 2002 and is regarded as its spiritual home.
The forum voiced its fears after Boko Haram seized a number of towns and villages across Borno and in neighbouring Yobe and Adamawa states in recent weeks and declared one of them part of an Islamic caliphate.
In Borno, the militants are now said to control an area from the north around Lake Chad, down to the eastern border with Cameroon and round to Bama, 70 kilometres (45 miles) from Maiduguri to the south.
Nigeria's military has claimed to have retaken Bama, but the elders said the government needed to act, asserting that the militants were in reach of the city.
"They have declared their caliphate is an independent Islamic State with their headquarters at the all-important and military strategic city of Gwoza," the elders said in an emailed statement.
"They declared the Gwoza Emir's palace as their seat of government, hoisting their flag there. They have annexed and are sitting in court in several other key towns and regions...
"They have completely surrounded the city of Maiduguri. It is apparent that their imminent target is to take the city of Maiduguri, the Borno state capital," they said, also calling on the government to fortify the city.
- 'Horror, death, destruction' -
Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states have been under emergency military rule since May last year but despite Boko Haram being driven out of Maiduguri by the military and civilian vigilantes, thousands of people have since died in the countryside.
Many more have been forced to flee their homes. A recent United Nations estimate said that as many as 650,000 people had been displaced both within Nigeria and into neighbouring countries.
The elders said that half of Borno state's 4.1 million population was now living in temporary housing in Maiduguri and there were genuine fears that an attack could exacerbate the crisis.
Roads and bridges have been destroyed, schools shut and the economy blighted. Maiduguri has also been without mains electricity for the last three months.
The elders even warned of "starvation" given that subsistence farmers had not been able to plant crops this year because of the chaos.
Borno had been devastated by "five years of horror, death, destruction and misery", they added, and criticised the government for its "dismal but also frustrating" response to the insurgency.
The militants had been treated with "kid gloves", they said, while a supposed troop surge had not been effective.
Nigeria's military has seen dissent within its ranks, with soldiers complaining of a lack of adequate weaponry to fight the better-armed militants. Some soldiers have refused to deploy or fled attacks.
They added that there had not been enough political will to fight Boko Haram and warned that the situation risked "the total annihilation of the inhabitants of Borno".
On Twitter, Nigeria's military said: "All facets of security arrangements for the defence of Maiduguri has been upgraded to handle any planned attack or attempt to disrupt the city's prevailing peace.
"This kind of alarmist report is uncalled for in view of the efforts and alertness. Citizens are nevertheless enjoined to remain vigilant as they go about their lawful business."
The military added that the situation in Gwoza, Bama and Gamboru Ngala in Borno and Mubi, Michika, Bazza and Gulak in Adamawa as well as other parts of the northeast was "being stabilised".
"Highly coordinated" air and land operations were continuing and "the efforts are yielding impressive results in the overall move to rid the area of terrorists," it said on @DefenceInfoNG.