By Ulf Laessing and Lanre Ola
MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (Reuters) – Nigeria’s army expects to seize Boko Haram’s last few strongholds in the northeast over the next few weeks, the commander in charge of crushing the jihadist group’s seven-year insurgency said on Wednesday.
The army missed a December deadline set by President Muhammadu Buhari to wipe out the group, which wants to set up an Islamic caliphate in the area around Lake Chad, but has retaken most of its territory – at one point the size of Belgium.
Major General Lucky Irabor, commander of the operation, said the jihadists were now holed up in a few pockets of the Sambisa forest – where more than 200 girls kidnapped from the town of Chibok in 2014 are believed to be held – and two areas near Lake Chad and would be flushed out “within weeks”.
Despite the set-backs, Boko Haram still manages to stage regular suicide bombings in Nigeria and neighboring Chad, Niger and Cameroon. Since 2009, more than 15,000 people have been killed, 2.3 million displaced and the local economy decimated.
“Almost all of the locations held by the Boko Haram terrorists have been reclaimed. We are talking only of a few villages and towns,” Irabor said in an interview at his base in Maiduguri in Borno state, birth place of the insurgency.
Much of the success is down to better military cooperation with Nigeria’s neighbors, especially Chad, whose forces have been attacking Boko Haram fighters fleeing across the border.
“There are joint operations. My commanders have an exchange with local commanders across the borders. Because of the collaborations we’ve had Boko Haram has been boxed in and in a few weeks you will hear good news,” he said.
He said the jihadists, who pledged loyalty to Islamic State last year, were still controlling Abadan and Malafatori, two towns near Lake Chad, apart from their main base in the Sambisa forest, south of Maidguri.
The army was planning a new push into Sambisa after abandoning an attempt due to torrential rain, he said.
“Earlier on this year we had a major operation in the Sambisa,” he said. “Gains were made but unfortunately the weather conditions became such that we to pull out waiting for more favorable conditions.”
He said the army had rescued some 20,000 people from Boko Haram, a fraction of the 2.2 million UNICEF said last week remained trapped in the region around Lake Chad.
Irabor’s base on the outskirts of Maiduguri, a sprawling military complex with rows of residential blocks for officers, is the most visible sign of a shake-up introduced by Buhari, a former military ruler.
Under his predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan, the army had a reputation for being poorly equipped and running away in the face of Boko Haram assaults.
Britain and other countries have recently increased military assistance, and two Westerners wearing flat jackets could be seen jogging in the compound.
U.S. officials told Reuters in May that Washington, which blocked arms sales under Jonathan amid concerns about rights abuses, wants to sell up to 12 A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft to Nigeria although Congress needs to approve the deal.
Irabor has set up a human rights desk to address the issue.
“The code of conduct is quite clear. Human rights issues are taken quite seriously,” he said.
He said that Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau had recently been wounded, but backed off an Air Force statement this month suggesting he had been killed in an airstrike.
“Shekau was wounded. That’s what I can confirm, but as to whether he is dead that I cannot at the moment confirm.”
Boko Haram, which normally communicates via video or audio clips posted on the Internet, has said nothing since the Aug. 24 Air Force statement about Shekau being hurt.
(Editing by Ed Cropley and Louise Ireland)