MARTE, Nigeria (AP) — Islamist extremists raised their black flag over this village in the remote plains of northeast Nigeria, setting fire to a church, shutting down the schools and bombing the police station in a violent overthrow of government control.
Just as quickly as they rose out of the desert scrub several months ago, however, they recently disappeared as Nigeria's military regained control of this area as part of a new offensive. As attack helicopters hovered overhead and tanks hid among the scrawny trees, military commanders told journalists touring the region Wednesday that they had struck a decisive blow against radicals who want to impose strict Islamic law over this multiethnic nation of more than 160 million people.
Yet behind the smiles and speeches, commanders acknowledged fighters with the extremist network Boko Haram likely escaped their dragnet, burning equipment they couldn't carry while still maintaining an arsenal of heavy weaponry. That means Nigeria's quick military successes may carry the price of years of troop commitments in this region of crumbling roads and derelict power lines to hold territory against a now-unseen adversary.
"One year, two years, three years — that's what we signed up for," Lt. Col. Olufemi Olorunyomi said.
The new military offensive comes after President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency May 14 in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states — a territory of some 155,000 square kilometers (60,000 square miles) of the Sahel bordering Cameroon, Chad and Niger. In a nationally televised speech, Jonathan acknowledged that the nation had lost control of some villages and towns to extremist fighters already responsible for more than 1,600 killings since 2010 alone, according to an Associated Press count.
Military reinforcements arrived to a northeast already heavily occupied with soldiers, but now with the authority to arrest anyone at will and occupy any building believed to harbor extremists. For weeks, the military issued statements outlining quick advances and mass arrests, while never offering clear explanations of its own losses. On Wednesday, the military flew foreign and local journalists from Nigeria's capital, Abuja, to Maiduguri in Borno state as part of a tour of one battleground area.
The tour clearly offered the message Nigeria's military wants publicized: Soldiers routed the extremists.
The chief of defense staff "was interested in the whole world knowing what was going on, and we have nothing to hide," said Gen. Jah Ewansiha, the commanding officer of the joint police and military task force in the northeast. However, commanders ordered journalists not to "clandestinely interview" any soldiers and tried to limit questions to officers who spoke along the way.
Officers displayed out of a cache of weapons they said they seized from Boko Haram fighters, ranging from locally made pistols that fire a single shotgun shell to truck-mounted anti-aircraft guns firing 12.7 mm rounds. Long belts of heavy ammunition mixed with rounds for Kalashnikov assault rifles. Much of the weaponry appears to be from old Eastern Europe arsenals, Col. Kayode Ogundele said, likely smuggled into the country as part of West Africa's thriving illegal arms trade.
The colonel acknowledged that extremists likely still have anti-aircraft guns and other sophisticated weaponry that poses a serious threat to Nigeria's military.
"I have a strong belief they still have some of them, and we are on it," Ogundele said.
Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state and the spiritual home of Boko Haram, had long lines Wednesday at ATMs, and some stores were open. Mobile phone service remains turned off in the region, as security officials have told the AP that the government shut down the networks in hopes of disrupting extremists. A military convoy carrying journalists sped past lines of waiting cars at numerous checkpoints, led and followed by armored personnel carriers with gunners who constantly swiveled their machine guns.
The caravan headed northeast some 95 kilometers (60 miles) toward Marte, and signs of the challenges facing northeast slowly came into view. The desert swallowed portions of the poorly maintained asphalt road. The convoy drove instead on hard-pan ground that had cracked under the blistering sun. Power lines from Nigeria's decrepit state-run electricity company lay in the sand.
The northeast remains one of the poorest places in the nation, where 75 percent of people live in absolute poverty on less than $1 a day, according to Nigerian government statistics. That poverty, coupled with growing anger over public corruption and few opportunities for the region's youth, helps fuel the insurgency. That allowed Boko Haram extremists to take over Marte several months ago as they preached about religious purity and called the government sacrilegious, Olorunyomi said.
Shortly after the president's announcement in May, soldiers moved into the area and took control. They discovered an extremist camp close to a nearby village called Kerinowa. What happened next remains unclear, as officials contradicted each other on whether they attacked the camp and destroyed the extremists' vehicles or whether the fighters torched what they couldn't carry and escaped.
The camp, hidden in brush, was deserted Wednesday, the ground scattered with medical supplies and discarded clothes. Authorities said extremists had begun coating their vehicles with mud and hiding them under trees to avoid being spotted from the air. Brig. Gen. Chris Olukolade, the military's top spokesman, has said the military carried out some aerial bombings against fighters.
At Kerinowa, several hundred people gathered to greet the military convoy and journalists. A teacher there said no one supported the extremists and that the Nigerian military had rescued them. But while everyone smiled and clapped for the commanders, the teacher said he was afraid to give his name out of fear of extremists retaliating against him — suggesting some had slipped back into the community unnoticed.
What happens next in the campaign remains unclear, though deployments across the nation and abroad have put increasing strain on Nigeria's estimated 76,000-member armed forces. Commanders said they wanted to invest in local communities while also protecting them, suggesting a long deployment. Meanwhile, extremists who slip away could just as easily return.
As the meeting in Kerinowa ended, those gathered prayed in unison to Allah for peace in the region. Only a few steps away, a soldier carrying an assault rifle watched, his helmet bearing the graffiti: "The joy of the Lord is my shield."
Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.