War not over af­ter Boko Haram ousted from for­est bas­tion

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -


Nige­ria has re­cently trum­peted a ma­jor vic­tory in its battle against Boko Haram, claim­ing that its army has routed the ji­hadists from their for­est bas­tion, but the war against them is far from over. Af­ter years of dev­as­tat­ing bat­tles and a re­cent surge in at­tacks, the fear in Nige­ria is that Boko Haram will sim­ply de­camp from the Sam­bisa for­est en­clave to other ar­eas nearby.

Nige­rian Pres­i­dent Muham­madu Buhari an­nounced on Christ­mas Eve that a months-long cam­paign had led to the “fi­nal crush­ing of Boko Haram ter­ror­ists in their last en­clave in Sam­bisa For­est”.

The Nige­rian mil­i­tary said troops were chas­ing flee­ing Boko Haram mil­i­tants, claim­ing that the fight against the ji­hadists was in its fi­nal stages. But on Thurs­day, Boko Haram’s elu­sive leader Abubakar Shekau ap­peared in a video to dis­pute the gov­ern­ment’s claim.

“We are safe. We have not been flushed out of any­where,” Shekau said in the 25-minute video, flanked by masked armed fighters.

As ac­cess to the con­flict zones is heav­ily re­stricted, claims from both sides can­not be in­de­pen­dently ver­i­fied.

‘A con­ve­nient sanc­tu­ary’

Ac­cord­ing to a mil­i­tary source who asked not to be named, Boko Haram ji­hadists have been “tremen­dously weak­ened and are try­ing to avoid con­fronta­tion ... by hid­ing in some ob­scure lo­ca­tions.” Is­lamists routed from Sam­bisa have re­port­edly fled to ar­eas on the edge of the for­est, islets on Lake Chad as well as vil­lages on the Cameroon border.

“They were sighted in large num­bers in ... the Kala-Balge area,” said a vig­i­lante help­ing in the fight, re­fer­ring to a re­gion near Cameroon.

The head of the fish­er­men’s union in Borno state, the epi­cen­tre of Boko Haram’s seven-year in­sur­gency, said some fighters had re­grouped on Lake Chad, which strad­dles Nige­ria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad.

It pro­vides the ji­hadists with a “con­ve­nient sanc­tu­ary”, with its 400 islets cov­ered with dense veg­e­ta­tion that makes aerial de­tec­tion and ground oper­a­tions dan­ger­ous, Abubakar Ga­mandi said.

“The islets are be­tween one and two square kilo­me­tres and the fresh water and abun­dant fish in the lake make them hab­it­able,” said Ga­mandi, who has fished in Lake Chad for 40 years.

Abu Musab al-Bar­nawi, the leader of a Boko Haram fac­tion recog­nised by the Is­lamic State group, has al­ready been liv­ing on the lake since his group split from Shekau’s lead­er­ship in Au­gust, res­i­dents and vig­i­lantes say. Should Shekau and his troops move there, it is un­clear whether the two ri­val fac­tions will end up bat­tling each other.

The next battleground?

Cameroo­nian troops have in­ten­si­fied their oper­a­tions along their na­tion’s fron­tier with Nige­ria, where flee­ing Boko Haram fighters have also sought refuge, ac­cord­ing to a vig­i­lante in the Nige­rian border town of Banki.

“Cameroon has upped se­cu­rity along the border which has forced flee­ing Boko Haram (fighters) to head to Kala-Balge, where Nige­rian troops are de­ploy­ing”, said the vig­i­lante, who did not want to give his name. — AP

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