Nigerian troops rescue over 330 women, children held by Boko Haram

Lagos (AFP) - The Nigerian army on Wednesday said it had freed more than 330 people, mostly women and children, from Boko Haram's Sambisa forest stronghold in the volatile northeast.

"The (army) unit ... rescued 338 persons that were held captive by the terrorists," the army said of the Tuesday operation, adding that 192 of the survivors were children and 138 women.

It was not clear if any of the around 200 schoolgirls seized by the Islamists last year in northeastern Chibok were among those rescued.

The raid targeted "suspected Boko Haram terrorist camps at Bulajilin and Manawashe villages" on the edge of the Sambisa forest, the army said.

It said troops also killed 30 suspected jihadists and seized a cache of arms and ammunition in the area.

Pictures released by the army following the operation showed mostly women with some of them carrying babies.

The freed hostages have been moved to a camp for displaced persons in Mubi in nearby Adamawa state, the army said.

The army also said four Boko Haram suspects on a suicide bombing mission to Gubula town in Adamawa state were ambushed and killed by government troops.

Some weapons, unexploded ordnances, mortar bombs and some cash were recovered from the suspects, it said.

There was no independent confirmation of the army claims.

Boko Haram is believed to be holding the abducted Chibok girls in its Sambisa forest stronghold.

Their audacious kidnapping on April 14 2014 sparked international anger, with strong condemnation of then president Goodluck Jonathan for his slow response to the girls' plight.

- Army claims successes against Islamists -

The Nigerian military has in recent months claimed a string of successes against Boko Haram in its quest to end the hardline Islamist group's six-year insurgency.

In early August, the army said it had freed 178 people, including more than 100 children, following an operation near Aulari town, about 70 kilometres (44 miles) south of Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State.

The air force said in a statement on Tuesday it had launched strikes on the group's vehicle and fuel depots "in a renewed drive to further degrade" its assets.

Air force chief Sadique Abubakar was quoted as saying the strikes were helping "pave the way for the final onslaught" by ground forces.

President Muhammadu Buhari, who came to power in May on a pledge to crush Boko Haram, has given his military commanders until the end of December to defeat the rebels.

Boko Haram violence has killed at least 17,000 people and forced more than 2.5 million to flee their homes since 2009.

But the hardline sect has stepped up its bomb and suicide attacks on so-called "soft" civilian targets such as markets, mosques, churches and bus stations in recent months.

Nearly 170 people have been killed this month and more than 1,420 since Buhari came to power, according to an AFP tally.

Boko Haram has also carried out deadly cross-border attacks in neighbouring Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

On Wednesday local officials in Niger said 13 people were killed in an attack on a village in the southeast allegedly carried out by Boko Haram militants.

"They burned cars, houses, stores," the private radio station Anfani reported.

A multi-national force from Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Benin is set to deploy to fight the insurgents.

Boko Haram, which wants to carve out a hardline Islamic state in Nigeria's northeast, has threatened to move south to spread its insurgency in the country.

Nigeria's secret police said at the weekend they had arrested and charged 45 suspects over an alleged Boko Haram plot to attack the country's financial hub, Lagos.