Nigeria’s military said it had cleared Boko Haram from the northeastern state of Yobe on Monday, while also claiming victory over the militants in the strategic town of Bama in neighbouring Borno state.
“We announced the reclaiming of (the town of) Goniri today,” defence spokesman Chris Olukolade said on his Twitter account @GENOlukolade. “That was the last stronghold of terrorists in Yobe… #YobeIsFree.”
Olukolade added in a later tweet that Nigerian troops had also ousted the insurgents from Bama, some 70 kilometres (45 miles) from the Borno state capital of Maiduguri.
“Nigerian troops have this afternoon routed terrorists from #Bama in #Borno state. Mopping up operation is ongoing,” he said.
Boko Haram Islamists had seized Bama, the second-largest town in the troubled state, in early September during the rapid capture of several towns and villages in northeastern Borno, Adamawa and Yobe states.
The three states have been at the epicentre of the six-year-old Boko Haram conflict that has killed more than 13,000 and displaced 1.5 million people.
The states were placed under a state of emergency in May 2013 but the violence continued and even intensified, with Boko Haram widening its attacks into neighbouring Chad, Cameroon and Niger.
In response, a four-country joint offensive was launched that has claimed a string of successes in rebel-held territory in recent weeks.
The military operation is part of efforts to secure and stabilise northeast Nigeria in time for general elections set for March 28.
– ‘Bama was hell’ –
As Nigerian troops inched closer to Bama at the weekend, locals said Boko Haram set fire to homes, forcing hundreds of residents to flee.
The soldiers entered the town at about 4:00 pm (1500 GMT) on Monday and fought the insurgents until they fled to neighbouring villages, residents told AFP.
Some residents took advantage of the military offensive to escape to safety.
Among them was mother-of-four Jummai Mumini, who arrived in Maiduguri on Monday.
“When I saw myself in Maiduguri, I thought I am in heaven because Bama was hell… Bama was hell,” she told AFP.
Recounting her ordeal, Jummai, who is now staying with an uncle, said she felt like she had been living “in a different world for many months”.
In an official statement, defence spokesman Olukolade said the recapture of Bama had inflicted “massive” casualties on the militants.
“The Chadian partners in the Multinational Joint Task Force have been mandated to undertake a pursuit of the terrorists who are believed to be heading for the borders after being dislodged from Bama,” the statement added.
With the apparent liberation of Yobe state, only a handful of towns and villages in Borno state now remain under Boko Haram control.
The military last week already declared that Adamawa state had been cleared of Boko Haram fighters.