Nigeria's military said Saturday that it had reclaimed a strategic border town from the Boko Haram militant group, while other reports said the militants continued their deadly campaign elsewhere in the country's northeast.
Military spokesman Chris Olukolade said the government troops, backed by airstrikes, took control of the garrison town of Baga after a fierce battle late Friday. In a statement earlier Saturday, Olukolade said many militants were killed or injured in the fighting, and that many drowned in Lake Chad while attempting to flee.
Baga was the site of a horrific massacre of villagers at Boko Haram's hands earlier this year, with an estimate of as many as 2,000 dead. It is located on a major supply route at the borders of Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Cameroon, and it had been in the hands of the Islamist militants since the attack in early January. Many residents of the area have fled for their lives.
Baga is near Doron Baga, a military base used by the joint forces fighting Boko Haram. Fighting has intensified in the past month since Niger, Chad and Cameroon joined Nigeria in deploying troops against the militants.
Boko Haram, whose name means "Western education is forbidden," has killed thousands of Nigerians in the past five years in attacks on schools, towns, markets, churches, mosques and various government targets.
Just over the border in Niger, at least 21 people are reported dead in clashes between militants and Niger soldiers in a village near Lake Chad.
Niger's military said seven soldiers and at least 14 militants died in an hours-long battle that ended Saturday near the border of Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon.
The Lake Chad area — a vast maze of tiny islands and swampland sheltering thousands of Nigerian refugees — is thought to be serving as a hideout for the Islamist insurgent group.
“There were heavy weapons and machine gun fire from about 20:00 local time,” said a resident of Niger's nearby lakeside town of N'Guigmi, which Boko Haram attempted to seize earlier this month. Niger security sources said several Boko Haram members were killed in the fighting.
It was not immediately clear which island had been attacked and whether it was inhabited, but the security sources and residents said it was in Niger and within 50 kilometers (30 miles) of the borders with Chad and Nigeria.
Last week, Boko Haram fighters aboard motorized canoes attacked a fishing village in Chad, killing at least five people in the group's first known lethal attack on that country.
The Sunni group, which has killed thousands of people in a six-year insurgency in Nigeria, has been gaining strength in the past year. It has carved out a territory the size of Belgium in the northeast of the country and intensified cross-border raids.
But regional forces from Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and Niger have won battles against the group in recent weeks as they seek to hem them within their heartland.
Niger, a poor desert nation, is also seeking to dismantle clandestine Boko Haram networks around its southern border. The defense ministry on Friday raised 2 billion CFA francs ($3.46 million) to help the army fight the jihadists via a telethon campaign.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius arrived in Chad on Saturday as part of a 48-hour trip to countries affected by Boko Haram's insurgency. He will travel to Cameroon and Niger next.
“I came here to offer [President Idriss] Deby France's support and solidarity,'' he told journalists, adding that he expected African countries to lead the fight against Boko Haram. France, the former colonial master, has a strong military presence in the region and provides intelligence and logistical aid.
The United States is deepening its commitment to countering the group and will share communications equipment and intelligence with African allies.
Military chiefs will meet in Chad's capital, N'Djamena, next week to finalize plans for a 8,700-strong task force of troops from Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria, Benin and Niger to fight the militant group.