MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (AP) — Boko Haram fighters are overrunning villages near the northeastern Nigerian town of Chibok, forcing hundreds of people to flee as the insurgents loot and burn in the area where nearly 300 schoolgirls were kidnapped in 2014, local leaders said Tuesday.
"Chibok is now under Boko Haram siege," the chairman of the Chibok local government area, Yaga Yarkawa, told journalists Tuesday in Maiduguri, the birthplace of Nigeria's homegrown Islamic extremist group some 130 kilometers (80 miles) northeast of Chibok.
The accounts of Boko Haram violence around Chibok, along with multiple suicide bombings in Maiduguri city and attacks on army outposts raise doubts about military and government claims that the 7-year-old insurgency is nearly defeated. Instead, the rebels have stepped up attacks as the rainy season draws to an end, making them more mobile.
Nine villages within 25 kilometers (16 miles) of Chibok town have been razed in the past two weeks with the most recent attack at Thlaimaklama at the weekend, Yarkawa said.
Boko Haram is employing scorched earth tactics, rustling livestock, looting crops just ready to harvest, and burning homes and what crops they cannot carry, he said. "Contrary to claims by government and security operatives, Chibok is not safe."
It's not known if anyone has been killed because people are too scared to go back to the deserted villages, civilian self-defense fighter Bulama Abogu said. No soldiers have intervened, he said.
Many of the villages fringe on the Sambisa Forest, where Nigerian security forces have been carrying out near-daily air bombardments and ground attacks in which they have freed thousands of Boko Haram captives and cut food supplies.
The forest stronghold was where Boko Haram initially took 276 schoolgirls kidnapped from the government high school at Chibok April 14, 2014. Nigeria's government last month secured the first negotiated release of 21 Chibok girls. Another Chibok girl escaped captivity in May and one was rescued in an army raid earlier this month. The government says it is conducting negotiations with Boko Haram for the freedom of nearly 200 Chibok girls remaining in captivity.
The chief of army staff, Lt. Gen. Tukur Buratai, last week insisted that "the terrorists have been defeated" and said the army is conducting "mop-up operations aimed at ensuring that we clear the rest of them."
That is disputed by former Nigerian Vice President Atiku Abubakar, who said at the weekend that "The insurgents still occupy a specific geographical space. They still retain the capacity for occasional deadly attacks. Many citizens in the zone still remain vulnerable and live in fear."
Some Boko Haram fighters are moving south into east-central Taraba state, according to some recent reports. There are fears that as the extremists come under greater military pressure Boko Haram fighters will disguise themselves as nomadic Fulani herders, who are blamed for deadly conflicts for land and water with farmers in central Nigeria, said analyst Jacob Zenn.
The Islamic uprising has killed more than 20,000 people, spread across Nigeria's borders and created 2.6 million refugees and a humanitarian crisis that the U.N. estimates has 14 million people in desperate need of food aid.
Faul reported from Lagos, Nigeria.