Soldiers from Niger and Chad who liberated the Nigerian town of Damasak from Boko Haram militants have discovered the bodies of at least 70 people, many with their throats slit.
In what appeared to be an execution site for the Islamist group, the bodies were strewn beneath a concrete bridge on one of the main roads leading out of the town. At least one had its head completely severed.
The bodies were partially mummified by the dry desert air, suggesting that the killings had taken place some time ago.
Boko Haram has killed thousands of people in a six-year insurgency aimed at establishing an Islamic caliphate in northeast Nigeria. Damasak was seized by the group in November but recaptured by troops from Niger and Chad last Saturday as part of a multinational effort to wipe out the militants.
Chadian soldiers, who said the bodies were discovered on Thursday, spoke of at least 100 corpses in the area around the dry river bed. A Reuters witness was able to count at least 70.
A trail of blackened blood was visible along the side of the bridge facing the bodies, suggesting they had been thrown off the side after being killed. Among the dead was the imam of the town.
All but around 50 of the town’s residents had fled by the time Damasak was recaptured. Those who remained were mostly too old or too sick to leave. The Reuters witness said a strong smell of decomposition in many parts of town suggested there could be more bodies concealed there.
Chad's military spokesman Colonel Azem Bermandoa said the Chadians had asked Nigeria's military to occupy the town, which lies close to the border with Niger, and would remain there until Nigerian troops arrived.
The regional offensive launched this year with Chad, Niger and Cameroon comes as Nigeria, Africa's most populous country and biggest economy, prepares to hold presidential elections on March 28th.
At the start of this year, Boko Haram controlled about 20 local government areas, a territory the size of Belgium. Nigeria’s army said on Tuesday it had, with the help of foreign allies, pushed the rebels out of all but three districts.
On Thursday, however, two security sources told Reuters that Boko Haram had killed at least 10 people in the town of Gamburu, on the border with Cameroon, demonstrating that it can still attack civilians despite being forced into retreat.
Nigeria’s president Goodluck Jonathan has been criticised for not doing enough to tackle the insurgency. His challenger Muhammadu Buhari has campaigned on a reputation for toughness gained when he was military ruler of Nigeria in the 1980s.
In an interview with the BBC, however, Mr Jonathan said he hoped all territory seized by Boko Haram would be retaken within a month. “They are getting weaker and weaker by the day,” he said.
Mr Jonathan admitted the response to the insurgents’ initial advance in northeast Nigeria had been too slow.
“We never expected that [Boko Haram] will build up that kind of capacity,” he said. “We underrated their external influence. Since after the civil war we’ve not fought any war, we don’t manufacture weapons, so we had to look for help to re-equip our army and the air force.”
Mr Jonathan also acknowledged that the whereabouts of the 219 schoolgirls abducted from Chibok by the militant Islamist group in April last year remained unknown. “We have not seen dead girls, that is the good news. I believe they are still alive, I believe we will get them,” he said.
Analysts question how long regional armies can sustain the tempo of the current offensive against Boko Haram without financial and logistical support from western nations. African countries want the United Nations to set up a trust fund to finance the operations. And even if militant group is driven from the main towns of northeast Nigeria, analysts warn that it will remain a potent rural guerrilla force, capable of bombing attacks. – (Reuters)