Kano (Nigeria) (AFP) - Hundreds of people from four villages near the devastated Nigerian town of Baga were forced to flee after Boko Haram militants told them to leave or face consequences, witnesses said Tuesday.
News of the exodus from Kekenu, Budur, Yoyo and Mile 90 villages came as Niger hosted a meeting on how to fight the rebels as concern mounted at their threat to regional security.
Also Tuesday in neighbouring Cameroon, Boko Haram insurgents engaged in "heavy clashes" with government soldiers in the far northern border village of Bonderi, though a security source said it was "too early to give a casualty toll".
The insurgents have been stepping up attacks in neighbouring countries as well as inside Nigeria.
Boko Haram fighters attacked Baga on January 3, looting and burning down homes and businesses in the town and at least 16 surrounding villages on the shores of Lake Chad.
Hundreds of people, if not more, are feared to have been killed, although there is no official confirmation of the toll as the town is still in rebel hands, residents said.
Security analysts said the attack, in which a regional military base was captured, potentially puts the group in a strong strategic position to strike southwards and launch cross-border raids.
Lake Chad straddles the borders of Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon, and tens of thousands of people have streamed across the frontiers seeking sanctuary from the relentless violence.
- Empty villages -
Abubakar Gamandi, head of the Borno State fisherman’s union, said residents from the affected villages told him Boko Haram fighters had visited "and asked people to leave -- or else".
One woman who fled Baga to the Borno State capital, Maiduguri, on Monday confirmed that she joined the crowds fleeing the four villages.
"When we came to Mile 90, we found it almost empty with some remaining residents staying behind to pick up personal belongings," said Ma'agana Butari.
"We also found Budur, Kekenu and Yoyo deserted and we caught up with some of the residents moving towards Monguno," the 32-year-old mother of five said by telephone from Maiduguri.
The villages lie some 40 kilometres (25 miles) south of Baga and although there was no confirmation that Boko Haram had moved in, it will likely raise fears that the group plans to push south.
Boko Haram, which is fighting for a hardline Islamic state in northeast Nigeria, was founded in Maiduguri in 2002 but was driven out in 2013 after a state of emergency was declared.
The city has in recent weeks been hit by a wave of suicide bombings.
- Regional threat -
Niger Foreign Minister Mohamed Bazoum said in the capital Niamey that Boko Haram's growing strength "reflects our slowness and our inability to put up a robust response".
However, as the talks opened, Nigeria's ambassador to Niger chastised his country's neighbours for pulling their forces out of Baga ahead of the assault.
"I note, with consternation, the withdrawal of the military forces from Chad and Niger without prior consultation," Ambassador Aliou Issa Sokoto said.
"One might have expected that we were properly consulted before the decision to pull out," he added.
Chadian troops deployed last weekend to help Cameroon repel Boko Haram attacks in the far north.
Ghana's President John Dramani Mahama has mooted formation of a larger regional force, possibly under the auspices of the African Union, to prevent the spread of violence.
Both Butari and another woman, Aisa Aribe, who arrived in Maiduguri from Baga on Monday, said Boko Haram were still in control of the town and the streets were strewn with corpses.
"Dead bodies are all over the town and surrounding villages. They are decomposing and there is no one to bury them," Aribe said.
The pair said they were among hundreds of women held by the group.
"They later separated the young women and beautiful ones and took them to a different location," Butari said.
"They told the rest of us that we had the choice to either stay or leave and join 'infidels' in Monguno (65 kilometres away where many Baga residents fled) and Maiduguri.
"They derisively told us we better stay with them because we have nowhere to go since they killed all our husbands."