Boko Haram fighters are overrunning villages near the Nigerian town of Chibok, forcing hundreds of people to flee as they loot and burn in the area, local leaders have said.
“Chibok is now under Boko Haram siege,” the chairman of the Chibok local government area, Yaga Yarkawa, told journalists in Maiduguri, the birthplace of Nigeria’s homegrown Islamic extremist group, 80 miles to the north east.
The accounts of Boko Haram violence around Chibok – where nearly 300 schoolgirls were kidnapped in 2014 – along with multiple suicide bombings in Maiduguri city and attacks on army outposts in the area, raise doubts about claims by the military and government that the seven-year insurgency is nearly defeated.
Instead, the insurgents have stepped up attacks as the rainy season draws to an end, making them more mobile.
Nine villages within 16 miles of Chibok town have been razed in the past two weeks, with the last attack at Thlaimaklama village at the weekend, Mr Yarkawa said.
Boko Haram is employing scorched earth tactics, rustling livestock, looting crops ready to harvest, and burning homes and what crops they cannot carry, he added. “Contrary to claims by government and security operatives, Chibok is not safe.”
It is not known if anyone has been killed because people are too scared to go to the deserted villages, civilian defence fighter Bulama Abogu said. No soldiers have intervened, he added.
Many of the villages fringe the Sambisa Forest, where Nigerian security forces have been carrying out near-daily air bombardments and ground attacks and freed thousands of Boko Haram captives and cut food supplies.
The forest stronghold was where Boko Haram initially took 276 schoolgirls kidnapped from a government high school at Chibok on April 14 2014.
Nigeria’s government last month secured the first negotiated release of 21 Chibok girls. Another girl escaped captivity in May and one was rescued in an army raid earlier this month.
The government says it is conducting negotiations with Boko Haram for the freedom of nearly 200 Chibok girls who remain missing.
The chief of army staff, Lieutenant General Tukur Buratai, last week said “the terrorists have been defeated” and the army is conducting “mop-up operations aimed at ensuring that we clear the rest of them”.
That is disputed by former Nigerian vice president Atiku Abubakar, who said at the weekend: “The insurgents still occupy a specific geographical space. They still retain the capacity for occasional deadly attacks. Many citizens in the zone still remain vulnerable and live in fear.”