MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (Reuters) – Islamic State insurgents left the town of Dikwa on Tuesday after seizing and overrunning the humanitarian hub and government stronghold in northeastern Nigeria, two aid workers there said.
An army spokesman had earlier on Tuesday denied reports by security sources, aid workers and residents that the town in Borno state had been overrun by militants. He said the attack was repelled and denied insurgents had trapped aid workers.
But the fighting for Dikwa, home to almost 100,000 people, underscored the worsening security situation in northern Nigeria, where the security forces face growing challenges.
Dikwa has been a flashpoint in an 11-year insurgency waged by jihadist group Boko Haram and its offshoot Islamic State West Africa Province, which said it was behind the attack.
The two aid workers in Dikwa, requesting anonymity because they were not permitted to speak to media, said Islamic State fighters had left the town of their own accord before noon on Tuesday, without meeting any Nigerian military resistance.
A Nigerian soldier said the militants had proved too strong in the earlier fighting, which he said had begun on Monday.
“We tried our best to repel the attack but they already overpowered us,” the soldier said. “We fled to the bush despite reinforcements from the air force.”
A second member of the military confirmed the town had been seized in the fighting, as did two Nigerian and two international security sources and four residents.
A spokesman for the governor of Borno did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.
Dikwa is one of the military’s “super camps” – towns repurposed as defensive strongholds in 2019 to help keep the military death toll down, while ceding control of much of the countryside.
Nigeria’s security forces pushed the insurgents out of the northeast’s main towns in 2015 and 2016, but the area is increasingly restive again.
Militants last week fired rocket-propelled grenades at Maiduguri in the northeast and armed gangs in the northwest who kidnap for ransom have abducted over 600 school pupils in the last three months, including 279 girls released on Tuesday.
No super camp had fallen until Marte in Borno state in January this year. It was recaptured last week.
Residents in Dikwa said the attackers wore military uniforms and proclaimed themselves “soldiers of the Khalifa”, the term used by Islamic State’s West African branch.
Dikwa doubles as a protected hub for people displaced by the conflict. Humanitarian groups there build camps and distribute food and supplies.
The fighters gathered residents and said the insurgency was against the military and anti-Islam forces, three residents said.
The insurgents burned or damaged aid agencies’ premises and a hospital, a Nigerian security source said, and Edward Kallon, the United Nations’ Nigeria representative, condemned the violence.
(Reporting by Maiduguri Newsroom and Paul Carsten in Abuja; Additional reporting by Camillus Eboh in Abuja; Editing by Alexis Akwagyiram, John Stonestreetand Timothy Heritage)