A raid on an army base in northeast Nigeria and massacres of civilians in nearby villages at the weekend have left Boko Haram free to move unopposed in a strategic garrison town, witnesses and security sources said.
A Red Cross official who fled the town of Damboa tells Reuters News Agency that 50 people were killed in the attacks on the town and six surrounding villages. The violence also drove out 15,000 civilians, the highest number recorded in such a short time.
The insurgents have yet to establish any permanent presence in Damboa and nearby villages, but a power vacuum existing since Nigerian troops stationed there were pushed out two weeks ago enables them to move as they please.
Moving into the area could represent Boko Haram’s biggest strategic success since a military offensive dislodged it from several cities and towns in Borno state last year.
Damboa lies on a major highway linking the northern and southern districts of Borno, which borders Cameroon, Chad and Niger. Other areas where the rebels roam freely are more remote.
“Boko Haram have actually taken over our communities,” said Andrew Tada, a resident of Attagara village, one of those that emptied out after the weekend attack. “Boko Haram have sacked them and nobody dares go back.”
He said that residents had fled to the mountains during the attack. When they returned, the militants had gone but the town was deserted. Boko Haram fighters then set up road blocks.
Boko Haram, which is fighting to carve out an Islamic state in Nigeria, has ceaselessly targeted civilians this year.
A soldier posted on the main road leading out of Damboa said a military offensive was underway to clear the Islamists out, but there had been no security forces in the area for two weeks.