ABUJA: The Nigerian army said on Sunday (Monday in Manila) it had recaptured the northeastern town of Chibok, where Islamic militants abducted more than 200 schoolgirls in April, provoking a wave of global outrage.
Control of Chibok is crucial to the reputation of the government of President Goodluck Jonathan and the military, which have both come under fire at home and abroad for their failure to rescue the girls.
The army recaptured the town from Boko Haram militants late on Saturday, spokesman General Olajide Olaleye told Agence France-Presse in a text message.
“Mopping up ops ongoing. [The] town is now secured,” he said.
The operation came just days after Jonathan on Tuesday announced his bid for re-election, vowing to defeat Boko Haram whose brutal five-year insurgency has plagued his first term in office.
In the latest sign of unrest on Sunday, a female suicide bomber blew herself up at a market in the town of Azare in Bauchi state, killing at least 13 people, police said.
One of two men who had been spotted entering the busy market with the woman was killed by an angry mob, residents said. The other man was detained by police.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the bombing, but Bauchi in northeast Nigeria neighbors the three states most affected by attacks from Boko Haram Islamists.
Leading elder Pogu Bitrus told AFP that Chibok was recaptured in a joint operation with local vigilantes known as the Civilian Joint Task Force, who back up the military in several parts of the northeast where Boko Haram is active.
He said the vigilantes fought inside Chibok while army soldiers “stayed outside the town to mop up the insurgents trying to escape.”
Boko Haram fighters had captured the town on Thursday after a battle lasting several hours that local officials said left many victims among both the insurgents and the local militias.
Several residents said the army had fled the assault, leaving the vigilantes to fight on their own against Boko Haram.
There was no immediate information about any casualties from Saturday’s battle for the town, which witnesses say is virtually empty of residents.
Chibok, in the northeast Borno state, has been under a global media spotlight since Boko Haram kidnapped 276 schoolgirls there in April, most of whom are still being held.
The Islamists stormed the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok on the evening of April 14 and forced the students onto trucks in a mass abduction that brought unprecedented attention to Boko Haram’s insurgency. Fifty-seven managed to escape.
After capturing Chibok on Thursday, Boko Haram militants torched its churches, although most of the town was already mostly in ruins after the April attack.
Neighboring villages were also set ablaze during Thursday’s battle.
Despite its sparse resources, the Civilian Joint Task Force appears to have become a substitute for the army in many areas of the restive northeast of Nigeria.
Armed with bows, machetes, clubs and homemade rifles, the fighters retook the commercial hub of Mubi in Borno state from Boko Haram with the help of hunters.
The insurrection by Boko Haram, which wants to create an Islamic state in mainly Muslim northern Nigeria, has claimed more than 10,000 lives in the past five years.
The militants have seized more than 20 towns and villages in the northeast in recent months despite pledges by Jonathan to boost security.
Africa’s most populous nation goes to the polls on February 14, with Jonathan effectively given a free run at a second term after the ruling Peoples Democratic Party endorsed him as its only candidate.
The insurgency – and Jonathan’s inability to stop it – has been a feature of his presidency and a key point of criticism for his opponents.
Jonathan, who only met with the families of the Chibok hostages in July, pledged last week to rescue the kidnapped girls as he announced his re-election bid.