ABUJA (Reuters) - Nigeria's army said late on Sunday that it rescued 178 people held by Islamist militant group Boko Haram in Nigeria's Borno state, the heartland of the insurgency. Spokesman Colonel Tukur Gusau said in an emailed statement that 101 of the those freed were children, 67 were women and the rest were men. He added that a Boko Haram commander had also been captured and several militant camps were cleared around the town of Bama, about 70 km southeast of the state capital Maiduguri. Boko Haram has been waging a six-year insurgency in the northeast of Africa's biggest economy in an attempt to establish an Islamist state adhering to strict sharia law. Nigeria's airforce also said that it helped ground troops repel an attack by Boko Haram around the village of Bitta on the southern edge of the Sambisa forest reserve, a stronghold of the militant group. Bitta is also west of Gwoza, a town near the Cameroonian border that was believed to be the militants' headquarters until a major offensive was launched earlier this year by combined Nigeria, Nigerien and Chadian forces. Boko Haram was pushed out of most of the vast swathes of territory it controlled at the start of the year but they have dispersed and returned to their guerrilla tactics of hitting soft targets with bombs and raiding towns. President Muhammadu Buhari has vowed to crush the group and a multi-national joint taskforce made of 8,700 troops from Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger, Chad and Benin is being set up in the Chadian capital N'Djamena to tackle Boko Haram. The force was supposed to start operations on July 31 but has been dogged by a lack of funding and political will. Buhari visited Cameroon this past week in an effort to smooth over differences over cross-border pursuit and then to Benin. (Reporting By Felix Onuah, Writing by Julia Payne; Editing by Sandra Maler)
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