Nigeria urges U.S. to move Africa Command headquarters to continent

ABUJA (Reuters) – The United States should consider moving its military headquarters overseeing Africa to the continent, from Germany, to better tackle growing armed violence in the region, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said on Tuesday.

Nigerian security forces face multiple security challenges including school kidnappings by armed gangs in its northwest and piracy in the Gulf of Guinea as well as the decade-long insurgency by Islamist militant group Boko Haram, which also carries out attacks in neighboring Niger, Cameroon and Chad.

West Africa’s Sahel region is in the grip of a security crisis as groups with ties to al Qaeda and Islamic State attack military forces and civilians, despite help from French and United Nations forces.

Buhari, in a virtual meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday, said U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), should be relocated to Africa itself.

“Considering the growing security challenges in West and Central Africa, Gulf of Guinea, Lake Chad region and the Sahel, weighing heavily on Africa, it underscores the need for the United States to consider re-locating AFRICOM headquarters… near the theatre of operation,” said Buhari, according a statement issued by the presidency.

He spoke a week after the death of the longtime president of Chad, Idriss Deby, in a battle against rebels.

Deby was an important Western ally in the fight against Islamist militants and under him Chadian soldiers formed a key component of a multinational force fighting Boko Haram and its offshoot, which has pledged allegiance to Islamic State.

“The security challenges in Nigeria remain of great concern to us and impacted more negatively by existing complex negative pressures in the Sahel, Central and West Africa, as well as the Lake Chad Region,” said Buhari, a retired major general.

AFRICOM did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

(Reporting by Felix Onuah in Abuja; Additional reporting and writing by Alexis Akwagyiram in Lagos; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Freed Nigerian schoolboys return home, tell of beatings and hunger

By Afolabi Sotunde

KATSINA, Nigeria (Reuters) – Scores of schoolboys who were rescued from kidnappers in northwest Nigeria arrived back home on Friday, many of them barefoot and wrapped in blankets after their week-long ordeal.

The boys, dressed in dusty clothes, looked dazed and weary but otherwise well as they got off buses in the city of Katsina and walked to a government building.

One, who did not give his name, said the captors had told him to describe them as members of the Islamist militant group Boko Haram, although he suspected they were armed bandits.

“They beat us morning, every night. We suffered a lot. They only gave us food once a day and water twice a day,” he told Nigeria’s Arise television.

A week earlier, gunmen on motorbikes raided the boys’ boarding school in the town of Kankara in Katsina state and marched hundreds of them into a vast forest that spans four states.

Security services rescued them on Thursday, authorities said. However, many details surrounding the incident remain unclear, including who was responsible, whether a ransom was paid, how the boys’ release was secured and whether all of them are now safe.

The abduction gripped a country already incensed by widespread insecurity, and evoked memories of Boko Haram’s 2014 kidnapping of more than 270 schoolgirls in the northeastern town of Chibok.

Six years on, only about half the girls have been found or freed. Some were married off to fighters, while others are assumed to be dead.

Any Boko Haram involvement in this kidnapping would mark a geographical expansion in its activities from its base in the northeast. The region is also plagued by armed gangs that rob and kidnap for ransom.

Hours before the rescue of the boys was announced on Thursday, a video started circulating online purportedly showing Boko Haram militants with some of the boys. Reuters was unable to verify the authenticity of the footage or who released it.

The boy interviewed by Arise TV was one of those who spoke in the video.

“They said I should say they are Boko Haram and gangs of Abu Shekau,” he said, referring to a name used by a Boko Haram leader. “Sincerely speaking, they are not Boko Haram … They are just small and tiny, tiny boys with big guns.”

Another of the boys told Reuters that the kidnappers had initially taken them to a hiding place.

“But when they saw a jet fighter, they changed the location and hid us in a different place. They gave us food, but it was very little,” he said.

TEARS OF JOY, PRAYERS OF THANKS

On Friday, the boys from the Government Science Secondary School walked from the buses in single file, flanked by soldiers and armed police officers, and were taken to the government building to meet the governor.

“We are very grateful. We are very grateful. We are very grateful,” a man who said he was the father of two of the pupils told Arise TV.

The boys were later brought back to the buses and driven off for medical checks, officials said.

A group of parents waited to be reunited with them in a shaded parking lot in another part of town.

Hajiya Bilikisu, in a cream-colored veil, said she had started to lose hope that she would ever see her son, Abdullahi Abdulrazak, again.

“I was just crying, crying with joy, when I saw them, my son” in pictures after the release, she told Reuters.

“They have to recovery psychologically,” she said. “They went through trauma. We have to try to counsel them, so they can now become normal persons.”

Hafsat Funtua, mother of 16-year-old Hamza Naziru, said she ran out of her house with joy “not knowing where to go” when she heard the news.

“I couldn’t believe what I heard until neighbors came to inform me that it’s true,” she said in a phone interview. She later returned home to pray.

The mass kidnapping piled pressure on the government to deal with militants in the north of the country.

It was particularly embarrassing for President Muhammadu Buhari, who comes from Katsina state and has repeatedly said that Boko Haram has been “technically defeated”.

Buhari said he had congratulated the state’s governor and the army, in a brief clip from an interview posted on his Twitter account earlier on Friday.

Information Minister Lai Mohammed told journalists on Friday the abduction was “totally unacceptable”.

“Our children should not have to go to school in trepidation. The federal government is doing everything possible to secure all our schools, and indeed all Nigerians,” he said at a press conference in the capital, Abuja.

(Reporting by Ismail Abba in Katsina; Additional reporting by Maiduguri newsroom, Ardo Hazzad in Bauchi, Garba Muhammad in Kaduna, Camillus Eboh and Felix Onuah in Abuja, and Alexis Akwagyiram in Lagos; Writing by Alexis Akwagyiram and Andrew Heavens; Editing by Alexandra Zavis and Mike Collett-White)

Nigeria’s Boko Haram behind more than 300 schoolboys’ abduction

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (Reuters) – A man identifying himself as the leader of Nigeria’s Boko Haram said on Tuesday the Islamist group was behind the abduction of more than 300 schoolboys, as anxious parents begged the government to secure their release.

Pupils who escaped kidnap on Friday, by jumping over the fence of the Government Science secondary school in Katsina state in northwestern Nigeria and fleeing through a forest, said the attackers were armed with AK-47 assault rifles and rounded up their victims before marching them off.

Boko Haram, whose name means “Western education is forbidden” in the local Hausa language, has waged an insurgency in the northeast of Nigeria since 2009 but has not previously claimed attacks in the northwest.

The claims in the audio tape, if true, could mark a widening influence of jihadist groups operating in northeastern Nigeria, political analysts said.

They could also signal that jihadists have formed alliances with militant groups operating in the Sahel, which could further destabilize the impoverished north of Africa’s most populous nation which plays a pivotal role in regional stability.

Katsina state authorities said about 320 boys were missing and Nigeria’s government said it had spoken to the kidnappers, who have sought a ransom from at least one parent.

“We’re begging the government to please try their best to get their release,” Hajiya Ummi, whose 15-year-old son Mujtaba is among those missing, said by telephone from her home in Bakori town in Katsina.

“His friends told me he was sick in bed when the bandits struck. He could hardly move but they dragged him out with the rest of the abducted students,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion.

Katsina officials had ordered all state schools to close because they did not know the attackers’ motives. Neighboring Zamfara state on Monday also ordered its government boarding schools to close, according to a circular seen by Reuters.

AUDIO CLIP

In an audio message which reached Reuters via a WhatsApp message, a man purporting to be Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau said: “We are behind what happened in Katsina.”

“What happened in Katsina was done to promote Islam and discourage un-Islamic practices as Western education is not the type of education permitted by Allah and his holy prophet,” he said.

No video footage was released of the missing boys.

The man offered no proof for his statement. Reuters was unable to verify the audio and Nigerian authorities did not immediately comment.

A security source told Reuters Boko Haram was not itself involved in the abduction, but that the kidnappers could have sold the boys to the Islamist group.

Spokesmen for the presidency, police and army did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Cheta Nwanze, lead partner at Lagos-based risk consultancy SBM intelligence, said huge swathes of northwest Nigeria were ungoverned spaces where arms and people moved freely across porous borders.

Nearby Burkina Faso has descended into chaos as Islamist groups with links to al Qaeda and Islamic State exploit ethnic grievances and government neglect of the arid north.

On Monday, an attack blamed on Boko Haram killed 28 people and burned 800 homes in the southern Diffa region of Niger, which borders Nigeria to the north.

“There is a danger that jihadists operating in the Sahel could potentially build alliances with groups that have previously remained in northeast Nigeria. That would further destabilize the region,” Nwanze said.

Boko Haram carried out the 2014 kidnap of more than 200 girls from a school in the northeastern town of Chibok. About half the girls have been found or freed, dozens have been paraded in propaganda videos, and some are believed to be dead.

More than 30,000 people have been killed since Boko Haram began its insurgency, aimed at creating an Islamic state.

(Reporting by Maiduguri newsroom; Additional reporting by Ardo Hazzad in Bauchi, Alexis Akwagyiram and Libby George in Lagos, Camillus Eboh and Felix Onuah in Abuja; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, Timothy Heritage and Tom Brown)

Nigeria releases 25 children cleared of suspected ties with Boko Haram: UNICEF

Children who were released by the Nigerian Army, after being cleared of suspected ties with armed Islamist groups, are handed to authorities in Maiduguri, Nigeria October 3, 2019. REUTERS/Kolawole Adewale NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (Reuters) – The Nigerian army released 25 children on Thursday after clearing them of suspected ties with armed Islamist groups in the country’s restive northeast region, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said.

Nigeria has fought an insurgency by militant Islamist group Boko Haram in northeastern states that has killed more than 30,000 people over the past decade. It is not clear how many children in total have been drawn into armed groups, including Boko Haram, or how they have been recruited.

UNICEF said 23 boys and two girls were released by the army and handed to authorities in Borno, the state worst affected by the insurgency.

“These are children taken away from their families and communities, deprived of their childhood, education, health-care, and of the chance to grow up in a safe and enabling environment,” said UNICEF Nigeria Acting Representative Pernille Ironside.

The children would be given access to medical support, education and vocational training, the agency said.

The release comes against the backdrop of widely reported cases of young people being held captive in Nigeria in differing circumstances.

In May, a regional militia allied with government forces freed almost 900 children it had used in the war against Islamist insurgents.

Earlier this week police in Lagos, the commercial capital, said they had freed 19 women and girls who had mostly been abducted and made pregnant by captors planning to sell their babies.

Last week, around 400 boys and men – some as young as 5 and many in chains and scarred from beatings – were rescued from a building in the northern city of Kaduna that purported to be an Islamic school.

Ironside said UNICEF was working to ensure that all children affected by the conflict were reunited with their families.

A total of 2,499 people, including 1,627 children have been cleared of association with non-state armed groups in Nigeria since 2016, UNICEF said.

(Reporting by Maiduguri Newsroom; Writing by Alexis Akwagyiram; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Nigerian police say eight Boko Haram suspects confess to Chibok abduction

FILE PHOTO: A still image taken from video shows a group of girls, released by Boko Haram jihadists after kidnapping them in 2014 in the north Nigerian town of Chibok, sitting in a hall as they are welcomed by officials in Abuja, Nigeria, May 7, 2017. REUTERS/via Reuters TVREUTERS/ /File Photo

By Ola Lanre and Ahmed Kingimi

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (Reuters) – Eight suspected members of Islamist militant group Boko Haram have confessed to involvement in the 2014 abduction of some 270 girls from the town of Chibok, the Nigeria Police Force said on Wednesday.

The mass abduction of girls from their school caused global outrage and drew attention to the militant group which has killed more than 30,000 people since 2009 in an insurgency aimed at creating an Islamic state in northeast Nigeria.

Abba Kyari, deputy commissioner of police, said 22 suspected members of the militant group were arrested in different locations in the neighboring northeastern states of Yobe and Borno.

“Eight of them, including a commander, have confessed to being involved in the planning and kidnap of Chibok girls,” Kyari said.

“It was an intelligence-led operation. We have been monitoring them for about six months to one year,” said Kyari, who led the team.

Nigerian authorities have convicted this year two alleged Boko Haram members to 15 and 20 years in prison for their purported role in the kidnapping of the Chibok girls.

The convictions are part of mass trials of more than 1,600 suspected members of the insurgency. Rights groups had criticized the court hearings for their secretive nature, with initial trials held behind closed doors.

With presidential elections due in February, President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration is under pressure to show success in the fight against Boko Haram, a group he had vowed to defeat when campaigning for 2015 elections.

The government and military have repeatedly said since late 2015 that the insurgency has been defeated. Despite that, authorities do not control all of the territory in Nigeria’s northeast, particularly around Lake Chad, and the militants frequently stage deadly, sophisticated attacks on the army and civilians.

Nigerian police are frequently accused of prisoner abuse and malpractice, claims they deny.

Many of the Chibok girls managed to escape in the hours following their abduction or were released in the last few years, including 82 who were released in an exchange deal that included several imprisoned senior members of Boko Haram. But around 100 are still missing and their condition is unknown.

(Writing by Alexis Akwagyiram; Editing by Robin Pomeroy, Richard Balmforth)

Nigeria’s Boko Haram has abducted more than 1,000 children since 2013: U.N.

FILE PHOTO: Nigerian soldiers hold up a Boko Haram flag that they had seized in the recently retaken town of Damasak, Nigeria, March 18, 2015. REUTERS/Emmanuel Braun/File Photo

ABUJA (Reuters) – Islamist fighters from Nigeria’s Boko Haram group have abducted more than 1,000 children in the northeast since 2013, the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF said on Friday.

The militants regularly took youngsters to spread fear and show power, the agency said on the eve of the fourth anniversary of the abduction of 276 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok, a case that triggered global outrage.

“Children in northeastern Nigeria continue to come under attack at a shocking scale,” said Mohamed Malick Fall, UNICEF’s Nigeria head.

The agency said it had documented more than 1,000 verified cases, the first time it had published an estimated tally. But the actual number could be much larger, it added.

It said it had interviewed one young woman, Khadija, now 17, who was abducted after a Boko Haram attack on her town, then locked in a room, forced to marry one of the fighters and repeatedly raped.

She became pregnant and “now lives with her young son in an IDP (displaced persons) camp, where she has struggled to integrate with the other women due to language barriers and the stigma of being a ‘Boko Haram wife’,” UNICEF said.

At least 2,295 teachers have been killed and more than 1,400 schools have been destroyed in the conflict, it added.

POLITICALLY CHARGED

The Boko Haram conflict is in its tenth year, but shows little sign of ending. In February, one faction kidnapped more than 100 schoolgirls from the town of Dapchi, previously untouched by the war.

A month later, the militants returned almost all of those girls. About five died while in Boko Haram hands. One other, Leah Sharibu, remains captive because she refused to convert to Islam, her freed classmates have said.

The government said the release was a prelude to ceasefire talks, though some insurgency experts disagree, saying it violated that faction’s ideology to kidnap Muslims.

Boko Haram remains a charged issue politically. President Muhammadu Buhari in 2015 rode to power on promises to end the insurgency. But his administration has failed to defeat Boko Haram, despite pushing the militants out of many towns in the northeast by 2016.

On Monday, Buhari said he plans to seek re-election in 2019.

Four years since the Chibok abduction, about 100 of the schoolgirls are unaccounted for. Some may be dead, according to testimony from the rescued girls and Boko Haram experts.

Boko Haram in January released a video purporting to show some of the missing Chibok girls, saying they wish to remain with their captors.

(Reporting by Paul Carsten; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

Nigeria to release $1 billion from excess oil account to fight Boko Haram

Nigeria to release $1 billion from excess oil account to fight Boko Haram

By Felix Onuah

ABUJA (Reuters) – Nigerian state governors on Thursday approved the release of $1 billion from the country’s excess oil account to the government to help fight the Boko Haram Islamist insurgency.

The account holds foreign reserves from excess earnings from sales of crude. It currently totals $2.3 billion, according to Nigeria’s accountant general.

“We are pleased with the federal government achievements in the insurgency war and in that vein state governors have approved that the sum of $1 billion be taken from the excess crude account by the federal government to fight the insurgency war to its conclusion,” said Godwin Obaseki, Edo state governor.

“The money will cover the whole array of needs which includes purchase of equipments, training for military personnel and logistics,” he told reporters after a meeting of Nigeria’s national economic council.

The release of such a large sum could raise concerns over corruption, endemic in Nigeria.

The next presidential and gubernatorial national elections are scheduled for February and March 2019. Historically, the run-up to elections has seen rampant graft and theft of public funds as politicians build war chests to contest the vote.

The insurgency in the northeast is in its ninth year. Deadly attacks on the military and civilians continue, and large areas are out of government control.

Officials have siphoned off funds meant for aid for 8.5 million people in the region.

In October, President Muhammadu Buhari sacked the country’s top civil servant, accused of having inflated the value of contracts for aid projects, part of a suspected kickback scheme.

The United Nations appealed to donors for $1.05 billion to fund humanitarian aid in the northeast in 2017, and says it will require another $1.1 billion in 2018.

Nigeria, which has Africa’s largest economy, has come under fire for devoting little of its own resources to humanitarian aid.

Military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have said troops are undersupplied and underpaid, with weapons, vehicles and other basic equipment often in disrepair or lacking. Some have alleged their own officers are skimming from already-meagre supplies.

The release of the funds is a further sign the Nigerian government and military may be abandoning their two-year narrative that Boko Haram has been all but defeated.

Nigeria’s long-term plan is now to corral civilians inside fortified garrison towns – effectively ceding the countryside to Boko Haram.

Earlier this month, Nigeria replaced the military commander of the campaign against Boko Haram after half a year in the post. Military sources told Reuters that came after a series of “embarrassing” attacks by the Islamists.

(Reporting by Felix Onuah; Writing by Paul Carsten; Editing by Andrew Roche)

Nigeria puts fortress towns at heart of new Boko Haram strategy

Nigeria puts fortress towns at heart of new Boko Haram strategy

By Paul Carsten and Ola Lanre

BAMA, Nigeria (Reuters) – Nigeria’s government has a plan for the northeast, torn apart by eight years of conflict with Boko Haram: displaced people will be housed in fortified garrison towns, ringed by farms, with the rest of the countryside effectively left to fend for itself.

The vision for the state of Borno, ground zero for the war with the Islamist insurgency, is a stark admission of the reality in the northeast.

For two years, the military and government have said Boko Haram is all but defeated, and the remnants are being mopped up.

But the military is largely unable to control territory beyond the cities and towns it has wrested back from Boko Haram. That means many of the nearly 2 million displaced people across the northeast cannot return to their homes in rural areas.

Kashim Shettima, the governor of Borno state, said it was not possible for people to live in small villages.

“There’s beauty in numbers, there’s security in numbers. So our target is to congregate all the people in five major urban settlements and provide them with means of livelihood, education, health care and of course security,” he told Reuters. “It’s a long term solution, certainly.”

The plan for the eastern part of the state, centered on the town of Bama, is intended as a pilot scheme to be rolled out in other parts of Borno if it is successful.

Vigilantes, currently members of a group known as the Civilian Joint Task Force, will become agricultural rangers, the governor said.

Aided by Nigerian security forces, they will aim to secure and patrol a five-km (three-mile) radius around each garrison town where people can farm.

An aerial view of the Federal Training Centre camp on the road between Maiduguri and the town of Bama in northeast Nigeria, November 23, 2017. Picture taken November 23, 2017. REUTERS/Paul Carsten

An aerial view of the Federal Training Centre camp on the road between Maiduguri and the town of Bama in northeast Nigeria, November 23, 2017. Picture taken November 23, 2017. REUTERS/Paul Carsten

PROTECTION

“It’s logical. Bama is the second biggest city in Borno,” said Peter Lundberg, the United Nations Deputy Humanitarian Coordinator for Nigeria, who heads the organization’s response in the northeast.

“People are very eager to go back if the conditions are right and if the conditions are safe, if the conditions are dignified, and of course it has to be voluntary,” he told Reuters.

Sentiment amongst the displaced is mixed.

Abubakar Goni, who lived outside Bama before fleeing to the Borno state capital Maiduguri, said he wants to return home, but if the town is safer he will agree to go there.

“I will support it as long as I will have a place to farm. I am also happy to hear the government will give us protection on the farm because I learnt Boko Haram men are still around.”

Others, like Tijja Modu Alhaji, are wary of potential disputes between residents of the towns where people will be sent and the returnees.

“I don’t want to stay in Bama because I will still be a stranger there, just as I am in Maiduguri now,” he said. “I want to go home, not to somebody else’s land.”

The governor’s plan is still in its early stages. It involves bringing back thousands of people who fled the town of Bama and the surrounding area and sought refuge in camps in Maiduguri and elsewhere.

They will eventually be housed in towns such as Bama, which was largely abandoned by its inhabitants when Boko Haram took it three years ago, but has since been recaptured by the military.

Many of Bama’s buildings are still shells, windows smashed, doors ripped out and roofs gone. Telephone and electricity wires remain torn down, more than two years after the military evicted Boko Haram.

It is not clear how the returnees will be housed. There are already 15,000 people in a crowded camp for displaced local residents set up by the military after it retook the town.

The United Nations had planned to move them gradually to new shelters accommodating 30,000 people that have been erected in the town, but the military said it could not oversee two camps there at the same time, UN and military officials told Reuters.

NEW HOMES

The government has announced plans to build 3,000 homes in the Bama area. But there are concerns about how people sent to the town will manage, since many did not originally live there.

“It’s one thing to move people to Bama,” said Lundberg. “Unless the engine of the economy can restart, the risk is that people are moving back to places where they will become very dependent (on aid).”

Aid workers said the demarcation between garrison towns and a lawless countryside means people have a choice: live in virtual quarantine, or return to their homes in the countryside, where Boko Haram roam, and be treated by security forces as potential insurgency sympathizers.

“You’re imprisoned, but you’re safe,” said one senior relief worker, speaking on condition of anonymity. “If you prefer your own life you can do it on the outside.”

Boko Haram’s recent attacks, including a suicide bombing that killed at least 50 in a mosque in Adamawa state last week, are the “last kicks of a dying horse,” Nigeria’s Information Minister Lai Mohammed said last Sunday.

But military and diplomatic officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said overstretched troops are unable to push Boko Haram out of non-urban areas. Much of Borno is not under the authorities’ control and attacks are rife.

“Borno is not getting better at all. It may have even gotten worse,” a diplomat said of the security situation outside urban areas. “There is no recovery and stabilization.”

(Additional reporting by Ahmed Kingimi in Maiduguri; editing by Giles Elgood)

Suicide bomber kills 50 in Nigeria in deadliest attack this year

By Percy Dabang and Ardo Hazzad

YOLA, Nigeria (Reuters) – A suicide bomber killed at least 50 people at a mosque in northeastern Nigeria on Tuesday, the biggest mass killing this year in a region facing an insurgency by Islamist militant group Boko Haram.

“Some of the dead were in pieces beyond recognition,” said Bayi Muhammad, a worshipper at the mosque in Mubi who said he only escaped the blast because he was late for early morning prayers.

The government and military have said numerous times since 2015 that Boko Haram’s eight-year insurgency is almost defeated but the group continues to attack civilian and military targets.

Tuesday’s bombing brings the number killed in 2017 to at least 278, according to calculations by Reuters. There was no claim of responsibility for the attack.

Abubakar Othman, a police spokesman in Adamawa state, said the death toll is at least 50 but “there could be more as those seriously injured could add to the figure.”

Mubi is in Adamawa state where Boko Haram held territory in 2014. Troops pushed them out in early 2015. The group mounts suicide attacks in public places such as mosques and markets.

Tuesday’s attack was the biggest in Nigeria’s northeast since two schoolgirl suicide bombers killed 56 people and wounded dozens more at a market in Adamawa last December.

It is also the first attack on Mubi since armed forces recaptured the town from Boko Haram in 2014.

The blast bears the hallmarks of a faction led by Abubakar Shekau, which forces women and girls to carry out suicide bombings. The attacks often leave only the bomber dead.

Boko Haram has waged an insurgency in northeastern Nigeria since 2009 in its attempt to create an Islamic state in the region. It has killed more than 20,000 and forced around 2 million people to flee their homes.

The group split in 2016 and the faction under Shekau is based in the Sambisa forest on the border with Cameroon and Chad and mainly targets civilians with suicide bombers.

The other faction is based in the Lake Chad region and led by Abu Musab al-Barnawi. It mainly attacks military forces after quietly building up its strength over the past year.

Most attacks focus on Borno state, the birthplace of the insurgency. The group held land around the size of Belgium in Borno, Adamawa and Yobe states until early 2015 but was forced out by Nigeria’s army and troops from neighbouring countries.

(Reporting by Percy Dabang in Yola and Ardo Hazzad in Bauchi; Writing by Alexis Akwagyiram and Paul Carsten; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

U.S. must step up support for operation against West Africa militants: France

French soldiers prepare their armoured vehicles at the Relay Desert Platform Camp (PfDR) in Ansongo, Mali, October 15, 2017, during the regional anti-insurgent Operation Barkhane. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

By John Irish and Yara Bayoumy

PARIS/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States must step up its support for a planned African force to fight Islamist militants in West Africa otherwise it could fail, leaving French troops to carry the burden alone, France’s defense minister said on Friday.

France intervened in Mali to ward off an offensive by Islamist militants that began in 2012 and 4,000 of its troops remain in the region as part of Operation Barkhane where they work alongside 10,000 U.N. peacekeepers in Mali.

France and West African countries are pushing for the creation of a regional force known as the G5 Sahel.

Washington provides bilateral assistance, intelligence and training for regional security operations, but it is cool toward the African force and has pushed back against U.N. support for it.

“In the Sahel, France is deploying in a high-intensity environment, with tremendous support from the United States. We are immensely grateful for that support,” Parly said in a speech at a Washington think tank monitored in Paris.

“But much more needs to be done. We can’t be, and don’t want to be, the praetorian (guards) of sovereign African countries. They must be made able to defeat terror on their own,” she said during a visit for meetings with her American counterpart James Mattis and White House National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.

“I would be happy if you could help spread the word in the Beltway,” she said in a reference to the U.S. government.

Parly said the G5 Sahel force was meant to bolster the security capacity of Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Mauritania, which are all former French colonies.

French officials see the success of the G5 Sahel as a long-term exit strategy for Paris. For decades, France has mounted military operations in its former African colonies but in recent years it has looked to spread the cost.

Until now the G5 force has only received a quarter of its estimated 423 million euro budget, according to a report by the U.N. Secretary General, who said financing the operation would “remain a significant challenge” for several years.

“It will start its first operations soon. It needs support. The U.N. wants to give support. I hope everyone can become convinced that a robust U.N. assistance is necessary,” Parly said.

French defense officials say they expect the first G5 patrols to begin this month and hope that will provide momentum ahead of a donor conference in December.

Parly said that militants could flourish if financial backing for the G5 was not forthcoming.

Her visit also aimed to ascertain the political fallout from an ambush in Niger in early October that saw four U.S. special forces soldiers killed by jihadists.

U.S. troops called in French fighter jets for air support and French helicopters to evacuate several wounded soldiers.

(Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)