DAKAR, SENEGAL - Boko Haram fighters have overpowered Nigerian soldiers at a military base in the far northeastern town of Baga, forcing residents and soldiers to flee. The military has not issued a statement about Saturday's attack, but sources told VOA the Islamist insurgents have full control of the town.
Boko Haram overran Baga after attacking a nearby village.
One survivor said "hundreds" of insurgents rode into Baga on motorbikes and other vehicles, some throwing explosives. They set fire to buildings and triggered a fierce gunfight with Nigerian soldiers.
The soldiers resisted "for hours," said an intelligence official in Maiduguri, telling VOA that they could not hold the town without reinforcements.
Insurgents had blocked the main roads. Residents fled into the bush or headed for Lake Chad to hop in canoes or try to swim away. Some drowned. Other residents were shot or injured. The number of dead and wounded is not known.
A fisherman who escaped told VOA some soldiers were peeling off their uniforms and begging for civilian clothes. He said they appeared to have run out of ammunition.
Clash lasted hours
The militants attacked "between five and six in the morning. By nine, it was all over," said Maina Maaji Lawan, senator for Borno state. It includes Baga, his hometown.
Lawan said local and state authorities had informed the military of the Boko Haram threat in the area.
"Reports were made," he emphasized. "I do not know – the ease with which it [Baga] fell is really, really very, very disappointing."
There has been no official response to the attack. In the past, government officials have insisted the war covers a vast territory in the northeast and said the military cannot be everywhere at once.
Boko Haram is known to attack military bases to resupply and rearm, but hoisting their black flag over Baga also struck a symbolic blow.
The town sits on Lake Chad, whose waters straddle the borders of Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad. The military base there was the nominal headquarters for a four-country joint task force set up last year to combat trafficking and terrorism. It appears only Nigerian troops were staffing the base when it was attacked.
Security analysts told VOA the loss of Baga raises renewed concerns about the military’s levels of morale and preparedness.
Soldiers in the northeast have complained they do not have adequate gear and ammunition to fight the insurgents.
Local media report military tribunals have sentenced at least 70 soldiers to death for mutiny and refusing to fight. More are reportedly awaiting trial.