By Joe Hemba
DAMATURU Nigeria (Reuters) - Boko Haram militants have seized an unguarded town in northeast Nigeria without firing a shot, witnesses said on Wednesday, as the Islamic insurgency took a new turn - seizing and controlling territory.
No one was harmed in the takeover - a departure for Boko Haram, which has killed thousands since launching an uprising in 2009, including several massacres of civilians.
"They went preaching in the whole town, asking people to leave government work and join them to do the work of Allah," said Musa Abdullahi, a trader who escaped Bara, in Yobe state. "People were afraid, but they said that they did not come to kill anybody but to preach".
Boko Haram's attacks appear to have shifted focus in recent weeks away from simply creating mayhem to taking ground and holding it.
Last month, the insurgents captured the remote farming town of Gwoza, along the Cameroon border, during heavy fighting. Abubakar Shekau, the group's leader, declared in a video the town was now "Muslim territory".
On Monday, the rebels attacked Bama, a larger town in northeastern Nigeria, and witnesses and security sources said by Tuesday they had seized much of it.
But on Wednesday the government of Borno state and local vigilante groups said Bama remained under government control. Defense spokesman Major General Chris Olukolade said by text message that this report was correct.
Controlling Bama would bring the rebels closer to the Borno state capital, Maiduguri, 70 km to the northwest, the birthplace of Boko Haram's movement. Fears that Maiduguri could be the next target led the government to extend a curfew in place there to 7 p.m. (2.00 p.m. EDT) until 6 a.m. - it previously started at 10 p.m.
"The attack on Bama town ... was very unfortunate, but I want to reassure our people that government is on top of the situation," Borno state deputy governor Zanna Mustapha, who is also an opposition politician, said in a statement. "Our security forces are engaging the insurgents in a fierce battle."
Local pro-government vigilantes also said the town remained in the hands of Nigerian forces.
"Bama has never been overrun or overtaken by the insurgents even for a minute," a spokesman for the youth vigilantes Jibrin Gunda told journalists.
The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) says 9,000 people have been fled fighting in northeast Nigeria in the past 10 days over the border to Cameroon. More than 700,000 people have been displaced externally and internally by the conflict.
Shekau's forces have killed thousands since launching an uprising in 2009 to revive a medieval Islamic caliphate in religiously mixed Nigeria. They are by far the main security threat to Africa's biggest economy.
(Additional reporting by Lanre Ola in Maiduguri; Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Larry King)