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In Boko Haram Fight, Lines Blur Between Nigeria Troops, Foreign Mercenaries

Chadian soldiers escorting a group of journalists ride on trucks and pickups in the Nigerian city of Damasak, Nigeria, March 18, 2015.

When the Toyota pick-up pulled into view last last week on the highway outside of Konduga, a town on the frontlines of the fight against Boko Haram, it startled the Nigerian army tank unit on the road.

It was midmorning on March 10 and the tank and accompanying infantry, who were part of an offensive to seize the strategic city of Bama a few miles to the southeast, feared the truck was part of a sneak attack by Boko Haram militants.

A tank, a Soviet-built T-72, opened fire and destroyed the truck, a popular model known as a Hilux, according to two Nigerian soldiers who were part of assault on Bama. Two men in the Toyota died; neither were Nigerian, the soldiers told VOA. At least one was a Ukrainian, they said, possibly both.

The foreigners were private military contractors— mercenaries—brought in by President Goodluck Jonathan’s government to turn the tide of battle after nearly six years of chaotic terror waged by Boko Haram.

That the two mercenaries were killed by what appears to be friendly fire offers a small peek into the fog of war and the haphazard campaign Nigeria’s armed forces have waged against the radical militants.

More than 100, possibly more, South Africans, Ukrainians, Brits and others are now actively fighting with, or at least concurrently, with Nigerian units. Most observers agree Nigeria finally has the upper hand over Boko Haram.

The fact that victories are only now being notched, weeks before critical presidential elections, may be cause for celebration for Nigeria’s beleaguered northeast. Whether the fate of the March 28 election will change on the fact that the war is being won in part by private, non-Nigerian soldiers remains to be seen.

Six days after the death of the mercenaries, Nigeria’s army declared Bama liberated.

Bama Is Seized

When Boko Haram took Bama last September, the militants were on a roll. Bama is the second largest city in Borno State, wedged in Nigeria's northeast corner, sharing borders with Chad, Niger and Cameroon. As with towns throughout the northeast, thousands were forced to flee.

The militants, who are driven by a mix of severe Islamic ideology and historic political grievances, later posted a video on the Internet that appeared to show dozens of civilians shooting wildly into groups of people in civilian clothing lying face down in a school.

Map of Nigeria showing the location of Bama and Maidiguri, in Borno State
Map of Nigeria showing the location of Bama and Maidiguri, in Borno State

By the beginning of this year, Boko Haram controlled an area about the size of Maryland, including nearly two dozen municipalities in Borno. In January, the group seized Baga, on the Chadian border, and overran a military base used by a joint Nigerian, Chadian and Niger military task force.

Nigerian officials reported that thousands of civilians may have been slaughtered, as people were driven to the shores Lake Chad, fleeing by motorized longboats.

In early February, Nigerian military officials announced they couldn’t ensure the security of national elections, and the vote was delayed until March 28.

Since then, however, the tide has turned, according to regional officials and accounts on the ground from VOA reporters and other media. Both Chadian and Cameroonian forces have taken major towns in Borno, including Damasak, where on Wednesday, hundreds of heavily armed soldiers paraded triumphantly through the town’s dusty streets.

"Friendly Fire"

On March 10, units from the Nigerian Army’s 7th Division massed on the highway to the northwest of Bama. Soldiers who participated in the assault told VOA that three previous attempts to take the town had been repelled, in no small part they said due to snipers who perched in the trees on the approach to the town and land mines littering the ground.

“What we always did when we got there, even before this offensive, was to just open fire randomly and raze the tree tops and bushes because of the possibility of an ambush,” said one of the soldiers, a corporal with a special forces unit based in Maiduguri, who was not authorized to discuss the operation with the media.

“We couldn’t go through there because of too many [improvised explosive devices] and, in some places, they dug big holes such that our equipment cannot go through,” he said.

In the end, planners used a different approach to Bama, attacking from the north, in the direction of the town of Mafa, and in conjunction with Cameroonian troops, from the south, both soldiers said.

“So it was from Mafa that we were able to enter Bama with the help of all those foreigners and fighter jets. We faced a very fierce resistance and so many lives were lost. It took three days of fighting,” the corporal said.

Asked who the foreigners were, he said: “there are South Africans, Russians, Ukrainians.”

On the morning March 10, Nigerian forces were scheduled to muster on Konduga before moving on Bama, the corporal said. At around 10 a.m., most units had departed, with a rear-guard staying behind to the southeast of Konduga, monitoring the highway.

A Nigerian tank unit, meanwhile, from a district to the north was part of the rear-guard. Another soldier, an army sergeant who was present at the time, told a VOA a convoy of four vehicles, led by the Toyota pick-up, approached from the direction of Maiduguri, to the northwest.

Typically, the sergeant said, mercenary units are escorted by Nigeria military. In this case, the escort, also a pick-up, was in the rear of the convoy. The other two vehicles were armored personnel vehicles carrying an unknown number of men and weaponry.

The tank unit’s concern was understandable. Over the course of their insurgency, Boko Haram militants had seized dozens of government military trucks and heavy weaponry and used them to bloody effect.

Receiving no communication from the Toyota, the T-72 destroyed the truck. The sergeant said two people in the Toyota were killed, one South African, the other Ukrainian. The corporal said both were Ukrainian.

“The tank engaged the lead pick-up truck first, before realizing that these were friendly forces,” he said. “Nobody knew who they were. As soon as they approached, one of our tanks opened fire. I don’t know why there was no communication.

“Two were killed,” he said. “They were late and the problem with our army is they were well organized with communications. So, a communication problem was what caused this incident.”

Last week, VOA, citing other Nigerian soldiers, reported that foreign military contractors were in fact actively fighting against Boko Haram, including flying Nigerian air force jets and helicopter gunships, and engaging militants directly in combat.

Neither Ukraine nor South Africa has commented on the reports of their nationals being killed.

Government officials, including Jonathan himself, in a VOA interview, said the foreigners were only trainers and instructors, not actually fighting Boko Haram.

Military Infighting

The issue of Nigeria’s inability to quell the insurgency has become central to the presidential campaign, with opposition leaders criticizing Jonathan’s inability to end the violence. Jonathan’s challenger, Muhammadu Buhari, has made it a campaign issue.

"Because of the way that this government has degraded the army, we now find the need to engage mercenaries,” Yemi Osinbajo, who is Buhari’s running mate, told VOA on March 15.

"There is absolutely no reason at all why the Nigerian army, which is one of the finest armies in the world, now have to engage mercenaries to come and fight,” he said.

The special operations corporal said the Nigerian campaign has also been hampered by infighting and lack of coordination between the army and air force.

“Sometimes we would call in the air force and give them coordinates of where the Boko Haram fighters are, but they would tell us that they didn’t see anybody there, and they would say use your artillery to engage them,” he said.

“That’s why it was decided to give the jets to foreigners; those retired [ex] military foreigners. They are now piloting those aircraft,” he said.

On March 16, the Nigerian army announced that Bama had been captured.

“I am glad to inform you that troops of 7th Division Nigerian Army today afternoon liberated Bama town, Bama Local Government Area just as the [multinational joint task force] coalition involving Chad and Niger took Damasak, Mobbar Local Government Area, all in Borno State,” Army Colonel SK Usman said in a statement.

Contacted later by VOA, Usman refused to provide any further detail the battle for Bama or about casualties.

He said nothing about mercenaries.

Material from Reuters and The Associated Press was used in this report.