An assault by Boko Haram on Sunday aimed at taking over the key northeastern Nigerian city of Maiduguri has been repelled, the military said, roughly 12 hours after fighting began.
“The terrorists’ attack on Maiduguri in the early hours of Sunday was quickly contained. The terrorists incurred massive casualty,” defence spokesman Chris Olukolade said in a text message. “The situation is calm as mopping up operation in the affected area is ongoing.”
Boko Haram fighters on Sunday launched a fresh attempt to take over the strategically crucial northeastern city of Maiduguri, a brazen attack on a state capital just two weeks before national elections.
Four residents told AFP that Sunday’s fighting began at roughly 3:00 am (0200 GMT) with loud explosions and gunfire, as the Islamists tried to enter the city from the south.
After heavy fighting in the Mulai area just three kilometres south of the city, troops backed by vigilantes repelled the attack, but the militants then began a separate assault to the east and gun battles were ongoing, multiple witnesses said.
“The gunmen were initially subdued in Mulai, but now they have changed strategy and are attacking through the Damboa road (to the east),” said local Bukar Mungono, in an account supported by two others. “Fighting is still going on.”
The Islamist rebels tried to capture Maiduguri just a week ago, but were repelled by troops.
The military was not immediately available to comment on the latest raid.
“The whole city is in fear,” said resident Adam Krenuwa. “People are afraid of what will happen if Boko Haram defeats the security forces.”
Losing control of Maiduguri, capital of Borno state, would be an enormous defeat for the security forces, whose handling of the six-year Islamist uprising has been fiercely criticised.
The city’s fall would also likely spark a humanitarian disaster.
Maiduguri’s population is believed to have swelled above two million in recent weeks as residents from other parts of Borno have been forced to flee to the city to seek refuge from Boko Haram violence.
Resident Fannami Dalwaye said people from the Mulai area ran towards the city-centre as the violence raged earlier on Sunday.
“Some of us are in mosques praying, just waiting to hear the outcome of what happens,” Krenuwa told AFP.
– Opposition stronghold –
Nigeria’s National Security Advisor Sambo Dasuki last month called for elections to be postponed.
He cited difficulties in distributing voter identity cards, but experts have questioned how Nigeria can hold legitimate national elections when significant parts of the country are controlled by Islamist rebels.
Boko Haram is believed to control at least half of Borno state, as well as several areas in neighbouring Adamawa and Yobe.
The northeast is an opposition stronghold and there are fears that the credibility of the polls could be challenged if millions of voters are disenfranchised, especially if the final tally is close.
The opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) has rejected any postponement of the vote, describing it as a stalling tactic by the ruling party which is fearing defeat after 16 years in power.
But even before the latest assault on Maiduguri, election officials conceded that voting would be impossible across much of the northeast.
Foreign observers have said that they will not even attempt to monitor polling in the region because of the unrest.
President Goodluck Jonathan, who is facing a tough challenge from former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari, has repeatedly sought to assure Nigerians that Boko Haram could be contained.
But those promises have consistently proved hollow, with the violence having escalated each year under his watch.
The conflict has killed an estimated 13,000 people since 2009, while Boko Haram has been blamed for the kidnap of hundreds of children.
Buhari, a former army general who briefly led the country as a military dictator in the mid-1980s, has told voters that he will be able to curb the bloodshed but has so far not released a specific plan to deal with Boko Haram that he would implement if elected.