MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (AP) — Soldiers in northeast Nigeria shelled suspected camps of Islamic extremists in the first military action of a new offensive against the insurgents, killing at least 21 people, a security official said Friday.
The fighting was happening in the Sambisa Forest Reserve, just south of Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, which soldiers previously raided on the hunt for fighters belonging to the extremist network known as Boko Haram. Meanwhile, gunmen launched an assault on the hometown of one of Nigeria's former military rulers hundreds of miles (kilometers) away, attacking a police station and banks, and a firefight between soldiers and Boko Haran insurgents broke out in another town
The Islamic insurgents are using camouflage uniforms, similar to those worn by government troops, to perpetrate violence against civilians and create an impression that it was carried out by government forces, Maj. Gen. Bola Koleosho told a news conference Friday in Abuja, the capital.
Koleosho said that in a firefight in the town of Daura, in northern Nigeria near the Niger border, two government soldiers were killed and an officer was wounded while two members of Boko Haram were killed. Three other Boko Haram fighters died when their vehicle crashed while attempting to flee the scene and some improvised explosive devices were recovered, Koleosho said.
Soldiers started the attack on Sambisa Forest Reserve on Thursday, having previously converged in the area in advance of President Goodluck Jonathan's state of emergency decree affecting three states in the nation's northeast, a security official said. The shelling with cannons killed at least 21 suspected Islamic extremists, the official said. There was no independent confirmation of the assault or casualties.
"We are not going to leave the forest until it's over," the official said, referring to the emergency rule.
The official spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak publicly about the ongoing military operation. Brig. Gen. Chris Olukolade, a military spokesman based in Nigeria's capital, Abuja, could not be immediately reached for comment Friday.
In a related development, mobile phone service returned Friday morning to parts of northeast Nigeria after being cut Thursday. The security official told the AP that the service cut came on the orders of Nigeria's government and security forces as soldiers moved into the northeast to begin operations. The official said service likely would be shut off again.
Mobile phones have become the only real communication device in Nigeria for both voice calls and the Internet, as the state-run telephone company collapsed years ago. By cutting off service at towers, the military could stop extremists from receiving warnings or intelligence ahead of their operations. Authorities said Thursday they had no information about the service cutoff or refused to comment.
Nigeria's military and security forces have tracked fighters by their mobile phone signals in the past as well, prompting extremists from Boko Haram to attack mobile phone towers in the region.
Under the president's directive, soldiers have ultimate control over security matters in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states. Over the last few days, witnesses and AP journalists have seen convoys of soldiers in trucks and buses moving through the region, as well as trucks carrying armored personnel carriers. Jet fighters also have been seen flying low over Yola, the capital of Adamawa state.
This new military campaign comes on top of a previous massive deployment of soldiers and police to the region. That deployment failed to stop violence by Islamic extremists, who have killed more than 1,600 people since 2010, according to an AP count.
Jonathan's emergency decree, declared on Tuesday, allows civilian governments to remain in place. Adamawa state Gov. Murtala Nyako, who belongs to Jonathan's ruling People's Democratic Party, criticized the president's decision in a radio address Thursday night.
"I believe that the declaration has been a shock to the people of the state and others," Nyako said. "True, this state has witnessed a few criminal activities by armed hoodlums in the last few years, but so (have) other states in the federation."
That could be seen Thursday night in Daura, a rural town in Katsina state that's the home of former military ruler and perennial presidential candidate Gen. Muhammadu Buhari. There, far from the states under emergency rule, gunmen attacked a police station and at least two banks, witnesses said. Police officials declined to immediately comment about the attack Friday.
Associated Press writers Jon Gambrell in Lagos, Bashir Adigun in Abuja; Ibrahim Abdul in Yola; and Muawiya Garba Funtua in Katsina contributed to this report.