'Mass grave' discovered in Nigerian town recaptured from Boko Haram
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Soldiers from Niger and Chad who liberated the Nigerian town of Damasak from Boko Haram militants have discovered the bodies of at least 70 people.
In what appeared to be an execution site for the Islamist group, the bodies were strewn beneath the concrete bridge on one of the main roads leading out of the town. At least one had its head completely severed.
The bodies were partially mummified by the dry desert air, suggesting that the killings had taken place some time ago.
Boko Haram has killed thousands of people in a six-year insurgency aimed at establishing an Islamic caliphate in northeast Nigeria.
Damasak was seized by the Islamist group in November but recaptured by troops from Niger and Chad on Saturday as part of a multinational effort to wipe out the militants.
Chadian soldiers, who said the bodies were discovered on Thursday, spoke of at least 100 corpses in the area around the dry river bed. A Reuters witness was able to count at least 70. Among the dead was the imam of the town. The Reuters witness said a strong smell of decomposition in many parts of town suggested there could be more bodies concealed there.
All but around 50 of the town’s residents had fled by the time Damasak was recaptured. Those who remained were mostly too old or too sick to leave.
One local resident, who survived the attack, spoke to FRANCE 24.
“People were in the town when Boko Haram attacked us. They fired at us. We ran into the bushes but they continued to fire. They chased some people and killed them,” he said.
Chad’s military spokesman Colonel Azem Bermandoa said the Chadians had asked Nigeria’s military to occupy the town, which lies close to the border with Niger, and would remain there until Nigerian troops arrived.
Pushing back Boko Haram
"Operation Mai Dounama", named after a 13th-century emperor of Borno province in northern Nigeria, aims to destroy Boko Haram bases close to Niger, a Nigerian army spokesman said Thursday.
The regional offensive launched this year with Chad, Niger and Cameroon comes as Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country and biggest economy, prepares to hold presidential elections on March 28.
At the start of this year, Boko Haram controlled around 20 local government areas, a territory the size of Belgium. With the help of its foreign allies, Nigeria’s army said on Tuesday it had pushed the rebels out of all but three districts. Two out of three of the worst-hit northeast states -- Yobe and Adamawa -- have been declared "cleared" while the third, Borno, is expected to be liberated “within a month", the military said this week.
On Thursday, however, two security sources told Reuters that Boko Haram had killed at least 10 people in the town of Gamburu, on the border with Cameroon, demonstrating it can still attack civilians despite being forced into retreat.
The Islamist uprising, which initially began as a campaign against Western education, has claimed more than 13,000 lives since 2009.
The group recently allied themselves with the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq.
President Goodluck Jonathan has been criticised for not doing enough to tackle the insurgency. His challenger Muhammadu Buhari has campaigned on a reputation for toughness gained when he was military ruler of Nigeria in the 1980s.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)