Nigerian Troops Retake Two Towns From Boko Haram

Chad soldiers
Chadian soldiers participate in the opening ceremony of Flintlock 2015, an exercise organized by the US military in Ndjamena February 16, 2015. Emmanuel Braun/Reuters

Nigerian soldiers backed by air strikes recaptured two towns from Boko Haram on Monday as U.S. and regional troops began war games in neighboring Chad, part of a growing international campaign to counter the Islamist militant group.

However, guerrillas from Boko Haram, which has killed and kidnapped thousands in a six-year insurgency in Africa's most populous nation, still managed to attack a military camp near Waza in northern Cameroon, wounding several soldiers.

"The wounded are being evacuated. The insurgents have been stopped," a Cameroonian military officer told reporters in Maroua, a town just south of the restive Lake Chad region where Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon meet.

After coming under fire, the soldiers in Cameroon, where 100 people were massacred in a Boko Haram border raid two weeks ago, hit back by killing several guerrillas and capturing an armored personnel carrier, the officer added.

Monday's strike beyond Nigeria's borders is typical of Boko Haram's recent tactics -- hitting troops gearing up for a coordinated campaign against its effort to build an Islamic caliphate in northeastern Nigeria.

In Nigeria itself, where the insurgency was cited as the main reason for postponing a Feb. 14 election by six weeks, the military said it was going on the offensive after months of criticism for an insufficient and inefficient response.

Troops backed by aircraft recaptured the northeastern town of Monguno, on the shores of Lake Chad, it said in a statement. Monguno was seized by Boko Haram in an offensive last month that also targeted Maiduguri, the regional capital.

"The air and land operation is continuing with aggressive advance towards other designated communities and locations meant to be cleared in the ongoing offensive against the terrorists," defense spokesman Major-General Chris Olukolade said.

The army had also seized the nearby town of Marte, the statement said.

War Games

Coinciding with the Nigerian offensive, Chad launched a U.S.-backed counter-terrorism exercise involving 1,300 soldiers from 28 African and Western countries that has been billed as a warm-up for a multi-pronged onslaught against Boko Haram.

The annual "Flintlock" exercises began in 2005 in an attempt to improve cross-border cooperation in Africa's arid Sahel belt, a region prey to al Qaeda-linked and home-grown Islamists, separatist insurgents and criminal trafficking gangs.

But as the death toll and outrage at Boko Haram have mounted -- particularly after the kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok last April -- the group has become the primary target of the exercises.

Chad suffered its first known lethal attack last week in what appeared to be a revenge strike for deploying its forces in the Nigerian border town of Gambaru.

"This exercise to a large extent can be considered a warm-up to enable our special forces to learn techniques in the fight against terrorism," Chadian Brigadier General Zakaria Ngobongue said in a speech to mark the start of the exercises.

More than 250 U.S. troops will take part in the three-week training drill, helping improve intelligence-sharing, patrols, desert survival techniques, airborne operations and marksmanship, the U.S. military said.

Other nations taking part in Flintlock include Algeria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Mali, Mauritania,Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Tunisia.