By Camillus Eboh and Joe Hemba
ABUJA/DAMATURU (Reuters) - Nigeria's military said on Wednesday it had killed 150 insurgents, including a commander, in an operation against Islamist group Boko Haram in which 16 of its own forces were also killed.
Violence in northeast Nigeria has intensified over the past two months, as the Islamists fight back against a military operation that president Goodluck Jonathan ordered in May to try to crush their four-year rebellion.
Army spokesman Brigadier General Ibrahim Attahiru said a series of raids carried out on Islamist camps in northeastern Borno state had pushed Boko Haram into hiding in a forest.
He said the army had received intelligence reports on September 12 that Boko Haram planned to launch an attack from the forest, adding that they were "well fortified with anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns mounted on vehicles".
"Based on this report, our own troops launched a deliberate attack. Over 150 insurgents were killed and the formation lost an officer and 15 soldiers," he said
A commander, Abba Goroma, was among those killed, he said. He was among 19 Boko Haram members who the army offered a total of 290 million naira ($1.8 million) for in late 2012 for information leading to their capture. He had a bounty of $62,000.
Attahiru was quoted in local newspapers on Wednesday as denying a story on Nigeria's Premium Times website that Boko Haram had killed 40 soldiers in an ambush in the same area.
The Nigerian army often says it killed large numbers of insurgents in battles in which a much smaller number of its own troops died. It is impossible to independently verify the numbers, although witnesses often give higher figures for troop casualties than the official ones.
No witnesses were immediately contactable in the area.
FIGHT FOR ISLAMIC STATE
Boko Haram, whose name means "Western education is sinful", wants to revive an era of medieval Islamic kingdoms in religiously mixed Nigeria by creating a breakaway state that would follow strict sharia law.
It is seen as the gravest security threat to Africa's top oil producer. Although their activities are located hundreds of miles away from its southern oil fields, they have bombed the capital Abuja at least three times, including a deadly attack on the United Nations' Nigeria headquarters in 2011.
In a separate attack on Tuesday, Boko Haram gunmen killed at least 20 people travelling along a road heading south from Borno, witnesses told Reuters.
Militants wearing military uniforms but with no caps and non-military shoes stopped traffic on a highway between Maiduguri and Damaturu, witnesses said.
"Travelers were asked to produce their ID cards and then they were gathered in one place before being shot," said truck driver who was let go and gave his name only as Hassan.
Another witness travelling the same road, Ibrahim, said: "I saw a lot of cars that were burnt in the bush ... Some of the corpses I saw were wearing military and police uniform."
An army spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
Thousands of people have been killed since the shadowy sect launched its uprising against the state in 2009, transforming from a clerical movement opposed to Western culture to an armed insurrection with growing links to al Qaeda's West African wing.
Surging violence in the northeast is unwelcome news for Jonathan, who is under intense political pressure due to a split in his party and from a recently formed opposition coalition.
He had been criticized for not quelling Boko Haram's insurgency, which worsened under his leadership, and the state of emergency he declared in May was seen as last ditch attempt.
The military said last month Boko Haram's leader Abubakar Shekau may have died in late July of wounds inflicted during a gun battle. If true, it has failed to end the violence.
(Reporting by Camillus Eboh; Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Alison Williams)