Nigeriens protest after regional force claims Boko Haram successes

Boureima Hama
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People hold signs during a protest against deadly raids by Boko Haram in front of the National Assembly in Niamey on February 17, 2015

People hold signs during a protest against deadly raids by Boko Haram in front of the National Assembly in Niamey on February 17, 2015 (AFP Photo/Boureima Hama)

Niamey (AFP) - Thousands of people marched in Niger's capital Niamey on Tuesday to protest against Boko Haram after regional forces claimed successes against the Islamists in the country's south and in northern Cameroon.

But attacks continued in Nigeria, with the Islamists storming the town of Askira Uba in Borno state on Monday evening, razing homes and public buildings, forcing hundreds of residents to flee.

In Niger, Prime Minister Brigi Rafini led demonstrators under a heavy police presence, with snipers posted on roofs along the route, including parliament, and shops shut.

"Niger will be the death of Boko Haram," President Mahamadou Issoufou told a cheering crowd at the end of the rally.

"Nobody attacks Niger with impunity and Boko Haram learned that to its cost on February 6."

Niger's army has said that more than 200 Boko Haram fighters were killed that day when they launched their first raids into the south of the country, while seven soldiers died. But sources on the ground did not mention numbers and talked instead only of heavy militant casualties.

Tuesday's protest came a day after police said they had detained over 160 people suspected of being allied to the group in the border region of Diffa, which is currently under a state of emergency.

Central African leaders also met in Cameroon's capital Yaounde to discuss a joint strategy against Boko Haram, reflecting increased fears about regional security.

Cameroon's army separately announced that it had killed 86 militants and detained more than 1,000 people suspected of having links to the Islamists in the country's far north.

- Local resistance? -

The attack in Askira Uba came after Nigeria's military claimed to have regained control of the garrison town of Monguno, near the Borno state capital, Maiduguri, which was seized on January 25.

Askira Uba lies 25 kilometres (16 miles) south of Chibok, where Boko Haram kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls in April last year, sparking global outrage and drawing attention to the conflict.

The Islamists took over Chibok in September but troops backed by vigilantes reclaimed it days later.

Since then, a large contingent of soldiers have been based in the now infamous town but residents claimed that soldiers "refused to deploy" to Askira Uba.

Independent corroboration of any of the claims in the remote regions in Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon are difficult, with access limited and communications almost non-existent.

But the high numbers detained recall Nigerian military tactics early in the counter-insurgency of holding large groups of civilians in areas of rebel activity.

Ryan Cummings, chief Africa analyst at Red24 risk consultants who tracks the conflict, suggested the numbers "may not be indicative of actual Boko Haram support".

Instead, local communities, particularly in Cameroon's Far North region which has been increasingly hit by attacks, may have armed themselves against the insurgents.

"This may be creating the perception that they are antagonistic towards government forces and therefore aligned to Boko Haram," he told AFP in an email exchange.

"This would explain why casualties numbers of supposed Boko Haram militants are so high in comparison to relatively low figures among military forces."

- 'Enemy of Islam' -

Niger's ruling coalition called for a national day of protest against Boko Haram last week following a surge in violence by the militants in the country's southern border region.

In Niamey, protesters held aloft banners proclaiming Boko Haram as the "enemy of Islam" and pledging "unswerving support" for the country's campaign.

Parliament voted on February 9 to send troops to Nigeria to fight the rebels, whose insurgency has claimed more than 13,000 lives and left more than one million people homeless since 2009.

The current regional force comprising troops from Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon has claimed early successes against Boko Haram, recapturing towns seized by the militants since mid-2014.

The group's escalation of attacks in northern Cameroon, its push into border areas of Chad and Niger -- and continued strikes within Nigeria -- suggests it is undeterred and well-equipped.

Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau said in a recent video: "Your alliance will not achieve anything. Amass all your weapons and face us. We welcome you."

Nigeria's government, long criticised for its inability to end the insurgency, has claimed that sympathisers in Niger, Chad and Cameroon have fuelled the conflict.

"We can't rule out the possibility that the sect does enjoy significant local support in these countries," said Cummings.

"Gross socio-economic and political marginalisation by the respective Niger and Cameroonian governments" may have created sympathy to the cause, he added.