Troops posing with a flag of Boko Haram after dismantling a Boko Haram camp along Djimitillo Damaturu road, Yobe State in northeastern Nigeria
Abuja (AFP) - Nigeria said on Wednesday that 36 towns had been retaken from Boko Haram since the start of a four-nation military offensive, voicing hope that the operation could lead to the group's "total defeat".
National security spokesman Mike Omeri said four towns had fallen since last Friday, including three in Borno state and Buni Yadi, in neighbouring Yobe state, where the insurgents slaughtered more than 40 students in February last year before seizing it in August.
Crucial "cooperations and alliances" have led to victories over the Islamist rebels, he said, thanking neighbouring Cameroon, Chad and Niger for cutting off "the supply lines of the terrorists".
"It is hoped that the unfolding regional cooperation will hasten the total defeat and extermination of Boko Haram in Nigeria and the sub-region," he added.
Speaking at the Atlantic Council think-tank in Washington, the head of Nigeria's National Intelligence Agency, Ayodele Oke, said the militants still controlled four local government areas.
He said he was optimistic that in a matter of weeks Boko Haram would no longer be in control of any territory, even if the government admits that bombings and gun attacks are likely to continue for the foreseeable future.
- Elections boost? -
Since the unprecedented joint offensive was launched last month, Nigeria has maintained that its troops were controlling operations.
But witnesses, experts and claims by other militaries indicate that Chadian troops have made a particularly large contribution, advancing deep into Nigerian territory and flushing Boko Haram fighters out of several parts of Borno state.
Nigeria delayed its February 14 general election to March 28 after security chiefs said they needed more time to weaken the militants.
The reported successes, which have not all been independently verified, may allow more people to vote across Boko Haram's northeast stronghold.
President Goodluck Jonathan could see his re-election chances improve if voters feel he has finally taken decisive action against the rebels.
The conflict has killed more than 13,000 people since 2009, and critics have accused Jonathan and military top brass of failing to contain the violence.
The fighting has displaced more than 1.5 million people in Nigeria but Omeri claimed that some were "now returning to their homesteads to settle back into normal life".
There was however no independent confirmation of significant numbers of displaced people returning home and Nigeria's claims about the conflict have in the past not been consistent with reports from the ground.
- Foreign assistance -
Western powers have so far been reluctant to get involved directly in the conflict, viewing it as an essentially "local" or regional issue.
But the involvement of neighbouring countries, cross-border attacks, Boko Haram's pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State group and a growing humanitarian crisis have increased the conflict's profile.
On Wednesday, the United States said it was seeking to revive a training programme with the Nigerian military that was pulled last year after a dispute over weapons procurement.
Nigeria's ambassador to Washington last year criticised the US for failing to provide the weapons required to deliver a "killer punch" to Boko Haram.
A US training programme for troops to fight Boko Haram was then shelved, although Abuja said the cancellation was a logistical, not a political decision.
US ambassador to Nigeria James Entwistle told reporters that officials were now "in the discussion stage" over a possible new programme.
"We're willing to talk about everything and hammer out the details based on what we can provide," he added.
Increased humanitarian assistance is one area where the international community could become more involved.
The International Committee for the Red Cross on Tuesday warned of a "full-blown humanitarian crisis" in the Lake Chad region, where Nigeria meets Niger, Chad and Cameroon.
Entwistle described the plight of the displaced as "horrible", adding: "It's sad to see. Many people have been displaced several times because of the conflict. We're doing what we can."