Nigeria bullish on Boko Haram but fear of attack lingers

Bukar Hussain
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A screen grab taken from a video posted on YouTube on June 2, 2015 by Boko Haram shows an alleged member delivering a speech at an undisclosed location

A screen grab taken from a video posted on YouTube on June 2, 2015 by Boko Haram shows an alleged member delivering a speech at an undisclosed location (AFP Photo/)

Maiduguri (Nigeria) (AFP) - Nigeria on Wednesday claimed Boko Haram's six-year insurgency was nearing an end, after the military said it had cleared rebel camps, rescued hundreds of women and children and arrested dozens of suspected militants.

But apparent government and military confidence in counter-insurgency operations was off-set by nearly 140 deaths in a series of bomb attacks and fears of more civilian bloodshed over the Eid al-Adha holiday.

President Muhammadu Buhari has given his new military high command until early November to end the rebellion, which has claimed at least 17,000 lives and made more than two million homeless since 2009.

Since the deadline was announced, the military has claimed successes against the Islamists and said troops had on Tuesday rescued 241 women and children near the town of Banki, close to the Cameroon border.

- 'Disarray' -

Army spokesman Sani Usman told AFP it was not immediately clear whether all those rescued had been kidnapped -- an established tactic in Boko Haram's quest for a hardline Islamic state in the region.

"Screening is ongoing to know their exact status. Some were being held, some belonged to their (the militants') families," he said.

Several hundred women and children were brought out of the group's Sambisa Forest stronghold in Borno state in May, while last month nearly 180 were freed south of the state capital, Maiduguri.

Usman said 43 suspected Boko Haram fighters were detained in Tuesday's operations in Jangurori and Bulatori villages, including a suspected regional commander or "emir".

There was no independent verification of the army's claims and the military has previously claimed gains, making observers cautious.

Boko Haram's leader Abubakar Shekau last weekend dismissed the military's repeated assertion the group was in disarray and a spent force as "lies".

- 'Days are numbered' -

Buhari on Thursday jets to the UN General Assembly in New York, where he will also attend a counter-terrorism summit hosted by US President Barack Obama.

Before he left, the Nigerian leader's spokesman Garba Shehu tweeted: "President Buhari assures all Nigerians that the days of Boko Haram are numbered.

"Boko Haram's reign of terror in parts of the country will be finally over very soon as the ongoing military onslaught against the terrorist sect will continue relentlessly until total victory is achieved."

The upbeat language is a far cry from 12 months ago, when a demoralised Nigerian army under Buhari's predecessor Goodluck Jonathan lost swathes of territory in the northeast to Boko Haram.

Since the turn of the year, troops -- assisted by counterparts from neighbouring Cameroon, Chad and Niger -- have clawed back captured towns and villages and apparently hit the rebels' capacity to fight.

There is still concern, including from Buhari, about an increase in guerrilla-style tactics such as hit and run raids, suicide and bomb attacks that have killed more than 1,100 in Nigeria since he took office in May.

Earlier this month, Boko Haram was blamed for bombing a camp in Yola, Adamawa state, for those who had fled the fighting, while there have been repeated attacks in Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

- Attack fears -

In Maiduguri on Sunday, at least 117 people were killed when improvised explosive devices and a suicide bomber killed worshippers at a mosque and football fans watching a televised match nearby.

Some 140 kilometres (87 miles) away in the garrison town of Monguno, more than 20 were killed when a bomb went off at a crowded evening market.

Nigeria's authorities have announced tight movement restrictions in Borno state for the Eid festival, which is being marked by two days of public holiday on Thursday and Friday.

Some 40,000 personnel are to be deployed across the country to ensure security, particularly at vulnerable locations such as markets, places of worships and bus stations.

In Maiduguri, some shops were shut, missing out on holiday custom, and locals were fearful about potential attacks.

"I am afraid. I am not going to any mosque to observe the Eid prayers because nobody is sure. Anything can happen," said Sanusi Modibbo.

"The prayer is mandatory. I will just remain at home and slaughter my ram at the appointed time."