N'DJAMENA, Chad (AP) — Soldiers from Chad and Niger launched the largest international push to defeat Nigeria's Islamic extremists whose war has spilled over into neighboring countries, officials and witnesses said Monday. Chad's president has warned that the leader of Boko Haram must surrender or be killed.
At least 200 vehicles full of soldiers were spotted by residents crossing from Niger into Nigeria. Loud detonations were soon heard, signaling heavy combat with Boko Haram, said Adam Boukarna, a resident of the border town of Bosso, Niger.
The push marks a sharp escalation by African nations against Boko Haram nearly six years after the group began its insurrection. At an African Union summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on Jan. 31, African leaders agreed to send 7,500 troops to fight Boko Haram. Later neighboring countries agreed to increase the force to 8,750. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has said he supports the AU's move.
The new offensive includes troops from Niger for the first time, in addition to Chadian forces that were already carrying out missions in Nigeria, Chadian Brig. Gen. Zakaria Ngobongue said Monday. He described extremism as a "cancer" in the region that could not be defeated by any one country alone.
"They are bandits and criminals who have nothing to do with religion," Ngobongue said, speaking to reporters after the closing ceremony for Flintlock, an annual training exercise in counter-insurgency tactics involving some 20 countries.
U.S. Army Gen. David M. Rodriguez, commander of the U.S. Africa Command which sponsored the exercise, noted here on Monday that the Islamic insurgents have been operating not very far from this dusty capital: The group has carried out attacks on this year as close as about 150 kilometers (90 miles) away. N'Djamena is about 30 kilometers (18 miles) from the Nigerian border.
"We find this year's exercise both unique and relevant because as you know ... we are not far from the immediate threat of Boko Haram," the American general, who had earlier commanded U.S. military forces in Afghanistan, told reporters.
Nigeria and its allies will defeat Boko Haram, said Mike Omeri, the Nigerian government spokesman on the insurgency.
Boko Haram's announcement over the weekend that it is affiliated to the Islamic State extremist group "is an act of desperation and comes at a time when Boko Haram is suffering heavy losses at the hands of the Nigerian Armed Forces and its regional partners," said Omeri. "The fact of the matter is that Nigeria and its neighbors are rooting Boko Haram out of its strongholds and degrading its combat abilities."
The new offensive comes just weeks before Nigerians holds elections many fear will be marred by violence, including from Boko Haram. The March 28 election was already postponed from Feb. 14 to enable security forces to gain control of a wide swath of northeast Nigeria where Boko Haram has roamed fairly freely, killing and kidnapping civilians with Nigeria's once-strong military becoming unable to respond. Boko Haram's leader has threatened to violently disrupt the vote and militants have warned those in the northeast not to take part.
Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan is running for re-election and facing great pressure to defeat a group that has killed thousands of civilians through suicide bombings targeting markets and schools. Boko Haram wants Nigeria — Africa's most populous nation — turned into a hard-line Islamic state. Jonathan has reluctantly agreed to the foreign help from Nigeria's neighbors, a humiliation for the country that already had Africa's biggest military force but whose troops are underequipped and demoralized, with corrupt officers allegedly siphoning off equipment and money.
Some analysts think the goal of stabilizing the northeast before the election will be difficult to reach.
"I don't think in six weeks they can do what they haven't been able to do in six years, but they have made advances and progress and it's that progress he (Jonathan) is very keen to show," said Adekeye Adebajo, the Nigerian executive director of the Cape Town-based Center for Conflict Resolution.
Boko Haram is blamed for killing at least 10,000 people in the last year alone. The violence in Nigeria has forced more than 1 million people to flee, including 100,000 to Niger, 40,000 to Cameroon and some 18,000 to Chad.
Hadisa Musa, 50, managed to escape the Boko Haram attack on the Nigerian town of Doro but only after seeing her son shot to death. She managed to spare his two children by hiding them underneath her on the ground.
Her 6-year-old grandson and 9-year-old granddaughter now stay with her in a refugee tent in Chad, after the trio spent three nights and three days in a canoe crossing Lake Chad to safety.
Her eyes moisten as she recounts their voyage, and she then pulls the fabric of her abaya up around her face, mumbling her words through the fabric.
As for the men who killed her son and scattered her family: "I don't even want to hear their name."
Boko Haram began launching attacks across the border into Cameroon earlier this year. Its fighters later struck at Niger, pounding the town of Diffa several days over the course of several days. And then on Feb. 13, jihadists in wooden boats came ashore to Chad where they torched homes and killed at least eight civilians.
When the war came to those countries, the mostly impoverished Nigerians who had fled Boko Haram violence back home were traumatized as they came under attack once again.
Chad's leader has vowed that Boko Haram and its leader Abubakar Shekau will be defeated one way or another. Chadian troops on March 2 seized the Nigerian town of Dikwa from Boko Haram, President Idriss Deby noted.
"He escaped justice during the taking of Dikwa by the Chadian army," Idriss told reporters last week. "But we know where he is. And if he refuses to surrender he will face the same fate as the others who perished in their defeat at Dikwa."
Associated Press writers Michelle Faul in York, England; Dalatou Mamane in Niamey, Niger and Edwin Kindzeka Moki in Yaounde, Cameroon contributed to this report.