Nigerian troops backed by jets have taken control of several camps of IS-linked jihadists, with two senior commanders escaping after several other ranking militants were killed, two military sources told AFP Thursday.
Troops overran Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP) camps in an area straddling Yobe and Borno states in northeast Nigeria after a month-long military operation, the sources said.
The operations have been ongoing as President Muhammadu Buhari replaced his four top military commanders after months of pressure over his government’s failure to end the country’s more than decade-long Islamist insurgency.
On Wednesday, soldiers aided by fighter jets overran Dole camp, the last jihadist stronghold in the so-called “Timbuktu triangle”, the two military officers said.
“With the fall of Dole the whole area is now under the effective control of Nigerian troops,” said one of the officers.
The jihadists have been in control of the area since 2013 when they seized it and established a strong presence, especially in the Talala area, which became the second largest ISWAP camp outside the group’s Lake Chad stronghold.
Last month troops took over Talala after a fierce battle in which six soldiers were killed by a suicide bomber who detonated his explosive-laden vehicle among troops, military sources told AFP.
“It was a tough battle,” said the second source on the Dole raid.
“The route leading to Dole was mined by the terrorists and troops accessed it on foot, engaging the terrorists in fierce battle with air support,” he said.
Several hostages were rescued from the camps while dozens of vehicles seized from kidnapped hostages were recovered, the sources said.
Two high profile ISWAP commanders, Modu Sulum and Ameer Modu Borzogo, fled along with some fighters during intense fighting while other commanders were killed, said the second source.
Escaping fighters were believed to have fled to Lake Chad which straddles Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Cameroon, where the group maintains camps on the islands dotting the freshwater lake, said the two military officers.
In another front, troops reclaimed five camps from the jihadists in Kidari, Argude, Takwala, Chowalta and Galdekore villages where the jihadists used suicide bombers to stave off troops advance.
“We lost some soldiers and several were injured in the suicide attack but the soldiers managed to subdue the terrorists,” said the second source, without giving details of the casualties.
ISWAP split from mainstream Boko Haram in 2016 and became a dominant group, launching attacks on military bases and ambushing troops while abducting travellers at bogus checkpoints.
Last week Buhari appointed new military chiefs, raising hope of a change in military strategy to end the 12-year old conflict that has killed 36,000 people and displaced around two million from their homes.