ABUJA, NIGERIA - Nigeria's military has recaptured the flashpoint town of Bama in northeast Borno state from Boko Haram and blocked the Islamist militants' advance towards the state capital Maiduguri, a senior official said on Monday.
He said government forces are also fighting a southward push into neighboring Adamawa state by the group, which recently has departed from its usual hit-and-run tactics and started to seize towns and territory.
The government source, who asked not to be named, said Boko Haram fighters had been driven from Bama, 70 kilometers southeast of Maiduguri. Government warplanes have bombed and strafed the militants after they stormed Bama last week.
“Bama has been recaptured by the soldiers and I can confirm to you Maiduguri is safe,” the official in Abuja told Reuters.
A market trader from Bama, Babagana Modu, also confirmed that soldiers were in control of the town, as government planes struck at Boko Haram positions in the surrounding area.
Thousands of civilians have fled the recent offensive by the Sunni jihadist movement, which has killed thousands in its five-year-old insurgency in the northeast of Africa's No. 1 oil producer.
It is now believed to be trying to mimic the example of Islamic State (IS), which has announced the creation of its own caliphate covering parts of Syria and Iraq.
Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau last month declared a “Muslim territory” after capturing Gwoza on the Cameroon border.
In addition to the fighting in Borno state, another Boko Haram column over the weekend pushed southward into neighboring Adamawa state, overrunning one town, Gulak, and attacking at least one more, Michika.
Locals reported the raiders were burning Christian churches, police stations and government offices as they went.
Nigeria's military had deployed reinforcements to Adamawa state to confront this threat, and was setting up roadblocks and positions around Mubi to prevent the militants from advancing further south, the government official in Abuja said.
Many local residents were fleeing to Yola, the Adamawa state capital, or to Gombe city in neighboring Gombe state.
President Goodluck Jonathan, who faces elections in February, and has been criticized by opponents for not doing enough to confront Boko Haram, was due to hold talks in neighboring Chad on Monday with President Idriss Deby, Jonathan's spokesman said.
Nigeria has agreed to step up cooperation with Chad and its other neighbors Cameroon and Niger to prevent Boko Haram and other jihadist groups from moving across their borders. Measures already discussed have included joint border patrols and intelligence sharing.
Counterterrorism experts say some links exist between Boko Haram and other Islamist groups, such as al-Qaida's North African franchise and Somalia's al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab, but there has been little evidence so far of extensive cooperation.
In Nigeria's February polls, southerner Jonathan is expected to seek re-election. Many believe political tensions stemming from the historic rivalry between Nigeria's mostly Muslim north and largely Christian south is also stoking the violence.