Nigeria army dismisses Boko Haram claims

2013-05-31 07:44

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Abuja - Nigeria's military on Thursday dismissed as "empty propaganda" claims by Boko Haram's leader that soldiers have retreated during an ongoing offensive, insisting the campaign has heavily damaged the Islamist insurgents.

In a video on Tuesday, Boko Haram chief Abubakar Shekau said soldiers have at times "turned and ran" when facing Islamist fighters and rejected military boasting about the success of the operation.

"We consider it as empty propaganda," defence spokesperson Brigadier General Chris Olukolade said of the video.

"To the best of our understanding, at the moment [the insurgents] are in disarray. They are on the run and so many of them have been captured," he told AFP.

He declined to provide figures of those captured or killed in the operation launched on May 15 after President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency in three north-eastern states considered Boko Haram strongholds.

He said those arrested or killed have included those from Niger, Chad, Sudan and Libya, but he could not give further details.

Later in the day, the military released a statement saying five Niger citizens and two Chadians were among those arrested in an operation at Tumbu Gini, a border town with Chad.

Shekau's whereabouts, which cannot be determined in the video, remain unknown.

"I don't know his location but I know that intelligence is trailing him," Olukolade said.

Plea for foreign assistance

Shekau called on like-minded Islamists in countries including Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq to join the fight to create an Islamic state in Nigeria.

Olukolade suggested the plea for foreign assistance implied weakness.

"If they are still firmly on ground why does he need help?"

The United States and analysts have voiced concern over the prospect of widespread civilian casualties during the operation, with Nigeria's military having been accused of massive abuses in the past.

Olukolade told AFP he has seen no credible evidence of soldier misconduct in the offensive.

Nigeria has however confirmed it has detained children in connection with the insurgency. It recently announced it would release women and children held for links to "terrorism" as a peace gesture.

Shekau claimed in another recent video that the group was holding women and children hostage in retaliation for wives and children of its members detained by the military.

Olukolade defended the detention of children, saying they were held for direct involvement with the Islamists, such as acting as lookouts or running errands. He could not give their ages or say how many had been detained.

Air strikes

He denied that the wives and children of Boko Haram members had been arrested to pressure them into turning themselves in.

With the military having cut mobile phone service in much of the northeast and access to remote locations restricted, rival claims about the conflict have been impossible to verify.

Olukolade said that air strikes used so far have primarily included covering fire for ground troops tasked with storming Boko Haram camps.

The military has claimed the destruction of several such camps, primarily in Borno state, Boko Haram's traditional base.

Boko Haram has waged its insurgency since 2009, with an estimated 3 600 lives lost, including killings by the security forces.

The group has pushed for the creation of an Islamic state in Africa's most populous nation and largest oil producer, though its demands have repeatedly shifted.

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