NIGERIA’s Boko Haram Islamists have reportedly overrun the main military base used by a four-nation joint force set up to fight the militant group.
Local media reported that the base in the north-eastern town of Baga fell after it was attacked by hundreds of insurgents Saturday, leading to troops abandoning it.
The town was also captured, as residents fled.
The attack is said to have started in the early hours of Saturday and had been extremely fierce, an official said.
“We got the information that Boko Haram insurgents went and dislodged the Multinational-Joint Task Force there, after a fierce gun battle that lasted for hours,” the unnamed official told local daily Premium Times.
Formed in 1998, the MNJTF, as the force is known, is comprised of troops drawn from Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger.
It was initially meant to fight cross-border crime, but its mandate was expanded to take on Boko Haram after the group’s insurgency took root following the killing of its founder in 2009.
Authorities were yet to issue an official statement.
The seizure would be a major coup for the Islamists, who have been fighting to establish a caliphate in the mainly Muslim north, and would further regionalise the conflict that has drawn in neighbours.
Cameroon last month bombed Boko Haram positions in its territory, following direct assaults on its troops by the militants.
The horrific killing of 48 fish vendors near the base along a route linking Nigeria with Chad near the shores of Lake Chad in November was also attributed to the group. The vendors were slaughtered quietly by slitting their throats or drowning them with their limbs tied up to avoid attracting the attention of nearby patrols.
The base has come under renewed attacks in an attempt to stop it carrying out its mandate. It is located in the state of Borno, on Nigeria’s northeast border with Chad. where over a dozen local governments are said to be under the control of the militants.
Its fall will also cause major political discomfort to Nigerian authorities, whose inability to rein in the militants has come in for sharp scrutiny ahead of a general election next month.
A Nigerian court last month sentenced 54 soldiers to death for mutiny after they refused to fight the militants. Twelve others were also sentenced to death for mutiny in September.
Despite an annual defence of $6 billion, Nigerian soldiers have in recent months complained that they are ill-equipped to fight the group’s members.
The Baga attack comes a day after about 40 boys and young men were abducted in the remote village of Malari, as the militant group keeps up steady attacks in the hard-hit north-east.