BAUCHI, NIGERIA – Islamic militants again attacked the remote Nigerian town from which nearly 300 schoolgirls were kidnapped, Nigeria’s military said Wednesday, resulting in a fire fight that killed 12 soldiers and led angry troops to fire on a commanding officer.
Soldiers said the troops fired at a senior officer who came to pay respects to the killed soldiers, whose bodies were brought to a barracks in Maiduguri, the capital of northeastern Borno state.
It is another sign of demoralization in the military that is in charge of the search for the abducted schoolgirls. The failure of Nigeria’s government and military to find them after the April 15 mass abduction has triggered national and international outrage and forced Nigeria’s government to accept international help last week.
Nigeria’s Ministry of Defense played down Wednesday’s shooting incident, saying soldiers “registered their anger about the incident by firing into the air. The situation has since been brought under control, as there is calm in the cantonment” in Maiduguri, about 130 km north of Chibok, where the girls were abducted.
But soldiers who were at the scene at Mailamari Barracks said infuriated troopers fired directly at the vehicle carrying Maj. Gen. Ahmadu Mohammed, the general officer commanding the army’s 7 Division. He was not hit.
The witnesses said the soldiers were angry because they wanted to spend the night in a village and told their command the road was dangerous after the attack around Chibok. They were ordered to travel instead and were ambushed, with at least 12 killed. The soldiers spoke on condition of anonymity because they want to keep their jobs.
The Ministry of Defense, which often exaggerates the number of enemy killed and downplays its own losses, said four soldiers were killed along with several insurgents.
“Troops engaged the insurgents in a fierce combat and extricated themselves from the ambush killing several insurgents. Four soldiers however lost their lives during the ambush,” said a statement from the ministry spokesman, Maj. Gen. Chris Olukolade.
President Goodluck Jonathan meanwhile rejected an offer Boko Haram to exchange the schoolgirls for imprisoned militants, but the government is open to broader talks with the rebels, a visiting British minister said.
Government officials initially said they were exploring all options with respect to the swap proposal and later said they were willing to negotiate with Boko Haram without specifying whether any putative talks might include an exchange for the girls.
Jonathan further refined that position on Wednesday during talks with Britain’s Minister for Africa Mark Simmonds.
“He made it very clear that there would be no negotiations with Boko Haram that involved a swap of abducted schoolgirls for prisoners,” Simmonds said after meeting Jonathan. “What he also made very clear to me was that he wanted his government to continue a dialogue to make sure a solution could be found and that security and stability could return to northern Nigeria for the medium and the long term,” he added.
At least 276 of the schoolgirls are still held captive, with the group’s leader threatening to sell them into slavery. In a video released on Monday, he offered to release the girls in exchange for the freedom of jailed Boko Haram members.
There is growing anger at the military’s failures, though soldiers have said they are outgunned and outnumbered by the insurgents, don’t have bullet-proof vests, are not properly paid and have to forage for food.
A sign of their failure is the vigilante groups to fight the extremists that have been springing up in northeast Nigeria over the past year.
In Kalabalge, a village about 250 km from Maiduguri, residents took matters into their own hands.
On Tuesday morning, after learning about an impending attack, villagers ambushed two trucks with gunmen, residents and a security official told a reporter. At least 10 suspected militants were detained, and scores were killed, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to give interviews to journalists. It was not immediately clear where the detainees were being held.
Kalabalge trader Ajid Musa said that after residents organized the vigilante group, “it is impossible” for militants to successfully stage attacks there.
Earlier this year in other parts of Borno, extremists launched more attacks in retaliation over the vigilante groups.
Borno is one of three Nigerian states where Jonathan has imposed a state of emergency, giving the military special powers to fight the Islamic extremist group, whose stronghold is in Maiduguri.
Britain and the U.S. are now actively involved in the effort to rescue the missing schoolgirls. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said FBI agents and a hostage negotiating team are in Nigeria now, providing technology and other materials and working with “our Nigerian counterparts to be as helpful as we possibly can.” U.S. reconnaissance aircraft are flying over Nigeria in search of the missing girls.
The U.S. military is flying surveillance drones as well as manned aircraft to help the search, the Pentagon said Wednesday. However, the data is not yet being shared with the Nigerians because Washington is still working out an agreement to govern the sharing of intelligence, Col. Steven Warren told reporters.
The United States has deployed a Global Hawk, which flies at high altitude, and the manned MC-12, a turboprop plane heavily used in Afghanistan, for the mission, said a defense official.