MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (AP) — Schoolgirls torn from their families in a mass kidnapping and forced into sexual slavery. Bombs that ripped through bus stations. The slaughter of hundreds of villagers, many with their throats cut.
Nigeria has suffered through years of violence from the Muslim extremist group known as Boko Haram, and now its neighbors are starting to take on the militants, too.
African nations are opening up a new international front in the war on terror, discussing Friday the formation of a five-nation force of 7,500 troops to confront the looming regional threat from Boko Haram. The United States promised more technical support, training and equipment.
On Thursday, neighboring Chad sent a warplane and troops that drove the extremists out of a northeastern Nigeria border town in the first such act by foreign troops on Nigerian soil.
“We saw the fighter jet when it started shelling and bombarding the insurgents,” said Abari Modu, who watched the attack from a nearby village in Chad, where he had sought refuge. He praised the prowess of the Chadian forces.
Chad’s victory, and the need for foreign troops, is an embarrassment to Nigeria’s once-mighty military, brought low by corruption and politics. The foreign intervention comes just two weeks before hotly contested national elections in which President Goodluck Jonathan is seeking another term.
The offensive by Chad came days after Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau warned Nigeria’s neighbors not to intervene.
“African kings … I challenge you to attack me now. I am ready,” he taunted in an Arabic video message translated by SITE intelligence monitoring service. Shekau regularly praises the Islamic State group and al-Qaida.
Boko Haram has declared an Islamic caliphate that now encompasses about 130 towns and villages in a large swath of northeastern Nigeria, according to Amnesty International. The country’s 170 million people are split almost equally between a mainly Muslim north and predominantly Christian south.
Global concern has grown in recent months as the terrorist group known for recruiting across borders launched a series of brazen attacks in northern Cameroon even as it increased the tempo and ferocity of attacks on Nigerian soil.
One video this week showed boys learning to shoot assault rifles, with one child appearing to be no taller than his weapon.
In what Amnesty International called the most deadly massacre of the 5-year-old Islamic uprising, Boko Haram killed hundreds of civilians — some say as many as 2,000 — in a Jan. 3 attack on Baga, a border town with a key military base on the northeastern border with Cameroon. Nigeria’s military said only 150 people were killed.
Boko Haram attracted international outrage in April when it kidnapped 276 schoolgirls at a boarding school in the remote town of Chibok. Dozens escaped on their own, but 219 remain missing. The U.S., Britain, France and China offered help to find the girls, and Jonathan has repeatedly pledged to return them to their parents, but not one has been rescued. He refused to swap the girls for illegally detained Boko Haram suspects.
Suicide bombings in recent months by young girls — one looked no more than 10 — has raised fears that Boko Haram is using the kidnap victims in its conflict, which has displaced more than 1 million people and killed about 10,000 in the last year, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.
The new multinational force proposed Friday would also be mandated with searching for and freeing all abductees, including the Chibok girls, according to a statement from the African Union.
“We will never forget the girls kidnapped from Chibok last April, and I will never stop calling for their immediate and unconditional release,” said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, a guest at the African summit.
“The Boko Haram insurgency poses a clear danger to national, regional and international security,” he said.
For years, Nigeria has looked down on its smaller, francophone neighbors, and Nigerian troops have clashed with soldiers from Chad and Cameroon in the past over border disputes.
Analysts say the neighboring countries worry how much Boko Haram has infiltrated Nigeria’s military. Even Jonathan has said that he fears his Cabinet is infiltrated by sponsors of the extremists. A year ago, he fired his entire military command and the defense minister.
Even as Nigeria’s military is humiliated by the foreign aid, witnesses say it has been ill-equipped to defend civilians from a series of vicious attacks. In Baga, Nigerian soldiers fought valiantly for hours, then fled when they ran out of ammunition, witnesses told The Associated Press.
The Defense Ministry said last week that troops were fighting to retake Baga, but residents who fled to nearby areas say there is no more fighting and Boko Haram remains in control. The military and government often make statements that later turn out to be untrue.
Jonathan said Thursday that troops have recaptured the Michika local government area in Adamawa state. But fleeing residents told the AP on Friday that while soldiers have moved into the town of Michika, Boko Haram fighters still are rampaging in many surrounding villages.
Also on Thursday, the insurgents launched a second attack in a week on Maiduguri, the biggest city in northeastern Nigeria. Soldiers fled when the insurgents began launching rockets just outside the city of 2 million, but the militants were held off by a civilian self-defense group armed with homemade hunting rifles and captured weapons, according to the group’s spokesman, Muhammad Gava.
Nigeria, Africa’s richest nation and the continent’s biggest oil producer, has an estimated annual military budget of between $5 billion and $6 billion, according to John Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
Yet he cites reports of troops going into battle with just 30 bullets each. Soldiers say they are frequently dumped in the bush without rations, water or tents for shelter, and that their officers steal part of their salaries.
The once-proud military is now riven by the same ethnic and religious divisions that some fear could tear apart the country, Campbell said.
And Nigeria has alienated some of its old friends. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited this week to promise help in fighting Boko Haram and to urge Jonathan and Buhari to refrain from fomenting post-election violence. About 800 people were killed in northern protests after Buhari lost the 2011 election.
U.S. training of a battalion to fight Boko Haram was inexplicably canceled by Nigeria in its final stages last year.
Nigerian officials complain the U.S. has refused to sell it arms, including helicopter gunships. Washington is hobbled by laws that prevent certain weapon sales to countries whose military forces are accused of gross human rights abuses. Nigeria is accused of killing thousands of civilians in its fight to put down the uprising.
Jonathan’s candidacy for re-election has divided even his own party, because he has broken an unwritten rule to rotate power between a Christian southerner, like himself, and a Muslim northerner.
The Feb. 14 balloting likely will be the most closely fought ever. Jonathan’s chief rival is former military dictator Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim northerner who ruled with an iron fist that some see as the only way to fight Boko Haram.
Faul reported from Dakar, Senegal. Elias Meseret in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Ibrahim Abdulaziz in Yola, Nigeria, contributed to this report.