MAIDUGURI, N’DJAMENA — Nigerian warplanes bombarded training camps and weapons caches and vehicles belonging to the Islamist group Boko Haram in the northeastern Samibisa forest on Thursday, the military said.

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Nigerian military personnel at checkpoints in Maiduguri, northeast Nigeria, in this file picture. Boko Haram has evaded security forces as it continues its violent campaign to create an Islamic state in the north of the county. Picture: EPA

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“The deaths of a large number of terrorists have been recorded while many others are also scampering all over the forest and out of the struck bases,” said defence spokesman Maj-Gen Chris Olukolade.

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After a year in which Boko Haram seemed to be gaining ground, seizing swathes of territory, killing thousands and kidnapping hundreds of mostly women and children, the tide has appeared to turn against them in the past month, as neighbouring countries, plagued by crossborder attacks, weighed in.

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Nigerian forces have killed more than 300 Boko Haram fighters during an operation to recapture 11 towns and villages since the start of the week, the military said on Wednesday, though it was not possible to independently verify this and the military has been accused of exaggerating enemy casualties while understating its own.

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Samibisa gained notoriety last year when Boko Haram kidnapped more than 200 girls from a secondary school in nearby Chibok. Some of the girls escaped shortly afterwards but most remain captive. Aerial surveillance of the forest has not revealed their whereabouts.

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Meanwhile, Niger, Chad and Cameroon are seeking to pin down Boko Haram within Nigeria’s borders ahead of a ground-and-air offensive by a regional task force due to start from the end of next month, a senior Niger military official said.

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The Islamist group, which has killed thousands of people in a six-year insurgency in Nigeria, has fought fierce battles with the three countries’ armies in southern Niger and northern Cameroon, near Nigeria’s borders, in recent weeks.

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Chadian forces have made incursions into Nigeria to push back the jihadist fighters, hundreds of whom were killed.

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Military chiefs will meet in the Chadian capital, N’Djamena, next week to finalise strategy for the 8,700-strong task force of troops from Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria, Benin and Niger, said Col Mahamane Laminou Sani, director of documentation and military intelligence of Niger’s armed forces.

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“All we are doing right now is stopping Boko Haram from entering Niger: if they attack our positions, we push them back a certain distance and Nigeria pushes from the other side to contain the situation,” he said, on the sidelines of the annual US-sponsored Flintlock counter-terrorism exercises in Chad.

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“There are initiatives by our countries to make sure Boko Haram doesn’t get out of control, but we have a deadline of end-March to put the joint force into practice,” he said.

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Highlighting the cross-border threat, militants attacked Niger overnight, killing three before they were driven back.

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The force’s first commander will be a Nigerian and the position will then rotate annually among members, Col Sani said.

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The implementation of the force has been delayed by tensions between Nigeria and Cameroon over the right to pursue militants across the border into each other’s countries, sources said. Niger and Chad have agreements covering that with each other and with Nigeria. Nigeria and Cameroon will be under pressure to iron out their differences.

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“This should be the last meeting, I think. We don’t have any choice,” Col Sani said. “If we don’t go to find Boko Haram, they are going to come and find us.” Niger’s military had carried out air strikes against Boko Haram positions and used ground forces to mop up the survivors, Col Sani said.

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Regional news website Sahelien.com reported raids by Niger’s troops who entered the Nigerian town of Marara on last weekend and air strikes on Damasak on Monday.

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A security source said the reports were accurate.

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Col Sani denied the Niger air force was responsible for an attack on Tuesday that killed at least 36 civilians at a funeral in the border village of Abadam.

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A local mayor said he believed a Nigerian military aircraft was responsible. Nigeria has denied this and Niger has said it is investigating.

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Air power will play a key role in the new force’s efforts but ground troops will then be used to neutralise survivors in the wooded and mountainous terrain occupied by the Sunni jihadist group, Col Sani said. “Information on their location needs to come from human sources first, then you send technological resources to check it, and you maintain observation on them until air strikes arrive.”

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Asked whether the US military could help with drone intelligence on fighters’ movements, he said: “That is already a reality. They help us in that sense.

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“This is no longer an issue of national security for Nigeria, it’s a question of regional and international security. If Nigeria implodes, the whole of Africa will feel it.”

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Reuters