Chibok girl escapes Boko Haram, says Nigeria’s presidency

A group of 82 Chibok girls, who were held captive for three years by Islamist militants, wait to be released in exchange for several militant commanders, near Kumshe, Nigeria May 6, 2017. REUTERS/Zanah Mustapha

ABUJA (Reuters) – Another Nigerian schoolgirl from the kidnapped group known as the “Chibok girls” has escaped from her captivity by Islamist insurgency Boko Haram, a presidential spokesman said on Wednesday.

The escape makes her the latest to return of the roughly 270 girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in April 2014 from the northeastern town of Chibok. Earlier this month, the militants swapped 82 of the girls in exchange for prisoners.

Vice President Yemi Osinbajo at a cabinet meeting in the capital Abuja on Wednesday “announced that another Chibok schoolgirl had been found after she escaped from her captors,” said the spokesman.

“I learned she is already being brought to Abuja,” he said, giving no further details.

Of the 270 girls originally kidnapped, around 60 have escaped and more than 100 have been released. About 100 more are still believed to be in captivity.

Boko Haram’s insurgency has killed more than 20,000 people and displaced more than two million since 2009 in an attempt to create an Islamic caliphate in northeastern Nigeria.

Three years ago, the abduction of the girls from their secondary school by Boko Haram sparked global outrage and a celebrity-backed campaign #bringbackourgirls.

For more than two years there was no sign of the girls. But the discovery of one of them with a baby last May raised hopes for their safety, with a further two girls found in later months and a group of 21 released by the Islamist militants in October.

Although the Chibok girls are the most high-profile case, Boko Haram has kidnapped thousands of adults and children, many of whose cases are neglected, say aid organization’s.

The group often uses those captives, especially young girls and women, as suicide bombers.

(Reporting by Felix Onuah; Writing by Paul Carsten; Editing by Tom Heneghan)

Red Cross finds 115 bodies in CAR diamond-mining town

DAKAR (Reuters) – Red Cross workers have found 115 bodies in Central African Republic’s diamond-mining town of Bangassou after several days of militia attacks, the president of the aid group’s local branch said on Wednesday.

The battle for control of the town marks a new escalation in a conflict that began in 2013 when mainly Muslim Seleka fighters ousted then-President Francois Bozize, prompting reprisal killings from Christian militias.

Recent clashes have centered on diamond-rich central and southern areas of the country, with rival militias battling among themselves to control them, aid workers say.

“We found 115 bodies and 34 have been buried,” Antoine Mbao Bogo told Reuters by phone from the capital Bangui. “They died in various ways: from knives, from clubs and bullet wounds.”

A senior U.N. official had previously reported 26 civilian deaths.

Hundreds of militia with heavy weaponry seized the southeastern border town of Bangassou at the weekend and U.N. peacekeepers have since then been trying to wrest it back.

The deployment of extra U.N. troops and air strikes have helped peacekeepers regain control of strategic points, U.N. spokesman Herve Verhoosel said on Wednesday.

Clashes between militias in the central town of Bria have killed five people, he added. The U.N. is also seeking to verify the deaths of up to 100 people in the town of Alindao.

(Reporting by Emma Farge; additional reporting by Tom Miles in Geneva; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Richard Lough)

Purported Boko Haram fighter says group plans to bomb Nigerian capital – video

By Ahmed Kingimi

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (Reuters) – A man purporting to be a Boko Haram fighter said the Islamist militant group plans to bomb Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, in a video seen by Reuters on Saturday.

“More bombs attacks are on the way, including Abuja that you feel is secured,” said the man in the video, which was obtained by Sahara Reporters, a U.S.-based journalism website, and Nigerian journalist Ahmad Salkida.

Reuters could not immediately verify the authenticity of the video. The man spoke in the Hausa language widely used in northern Nigeria and held a rifle while flanked by four other armed men.

Nigeria’s state security agency, the Department of State Services (DSS), in April said it had thwarted plans by Boko Haram militants linked to Islamic State to attack the British and U.S. embassies in Abuja.

About 82 girls were freed last Saturday in exchange for Boko Haram commanders after being held captive for three years. They were among about 270 kidnapped by the jihadist group from the town of Chibok in northeast Nigeria in April 2014.

In a second video seen by Reuters, one of a group of four females covered in full-length Muslim veils claiming to be among the abducted girls said she did not want to return home.

“We don’t want to reunite with our parents because they are not worshipping Allah, and I urge you to join us,” she said, holding a rifle and speaking in the Hausa. She added: “We have not been forcefully married to anybody. Marriage is based on your wish.”

Reuters was not immediately able to verify the authenticity of the video.

Mediator and lawyer Zannah Mustapha said some of the abducted girls refused to be released, fuelling fears that they have been radicalised.

Boko Haram has killed about 20,000 people and forced more than 2 million people to flee their homes since 2009 in an insurgency aimed at creating a state adhering to strict Islamic laws in the northeast of Africa’s most populous nation.

The militant group also carries out cross-border attacks in neighboring Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

Boko Haram controlled a swathe of land in northeast Nigeria about the size of Belgium until the start of 2015.

The army has retaken much of the territory that had been lost to the group, but large parts of the northeast, particularly in Borno state, remain under threat from the militants.

(Additional reporting by Angela Ukomadu in Lagos, Garba Muhammad in Kaduna and Ardo Abdullahi in Bauchi; Writing by Alexis Akwagyiram; Editing by Grant McCool and Bill Trott)

Nigeria exchanges 82 Chibok girls kidnapped by Boko Haram for prisoners

A group of 82 Chibok girls, who were held captive for three years by Islamist militants, wait to be released in exchange for several militant commanders, near Kumshe, Nigeria May 6, 2017. REUTERS/Zanah Mustapha

By Felix Onuah and Ahmed Kingimi

ABUJA/MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (Reuters) – Boko Haram militants have released 82 schoolgirls out of a group of more than 200 whom they kidnapped from the northeastern town of Chibok three years ago in exchange for prisoners, the presidency said on Saturday.

Around 270 girls were kidnapped in April 2014 by the Islamist militant group, which has killed 15,000 people and displaced more than two million during a seven-year insurgency aimed at creating an Islamic caliphate in northeastern Nigeria.

Dozens escaped in the initial melee, but more than 200 remained missing for more than two years.

Nigeria thanked Switzerland and the International Committee of the Red Cross for helping secure the release of the 82 girls after “lengthy negotiations”, the presidency said in a statement.

President Muhammadu Buhari will receive the girls on Sunday afternoon in the capital Abuja, it said, without saying how many Boko Haram suspects had been exchanged or disclosing other details.

A military source said the girls were brought on Sunday morning from Banki near the Cameroon border to Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state where the insurgency started.

The release of the girls may give a boost to Buhari who has hardly appeared in public since returning from Britain in March for treatment of an unspecified illness.

He made crushing the insurgency a pillar of his election campaign in 2015.

The army has retaken most of the territory initially lost to the militants but attacks and suicide bombings by the group have made it nearly impossible for displaced persons to return to their recaptured hometowns.

“The President directed the security agencies to continue in earnest until all the Chibok girls have been released and reunited with their families,” the presidency said.

INSECURITY

More than 20 girls were released last October in a deal brokered by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Others have escaped or been rescued, but 195 were believed to be still in captivity.

Buhari said last month that the government was in talks to secure the release of the remaining captives.

Although the Chibok girls are the most high-profile case, Boko Haram has kidnapped thousands of adults and children, many of whose cases have been neglected.

Although the army has retaken much of the territory initially lost to Boko Haram, large parts of the northeast, particularly in Borno state, remain under threat from the militants. Suicide bombings and gun attacks have increased in the region since the end of the rainy season late last year.

Some 4.7 million people in northeast Nigeria depend on food aid, some of which is blocked by militant attacks, some held up by a lack of funding and some, diplomats say, stolen before it can reach those in need.

Millions of Nigerians may soon be in peril if the situation deteriorates, as authorities expect, when the five-month rainy season begins in May and makes farming impossible in areas that are now accessible.

This part of Nigeria is the western edge of an arc of hunger stretching across the breadth of Africa through South Sudan, Somalia and into Yemen on the Arabian peninsula. The United Nations believes as many as 20 million people are in danger in what could become the world’s worst famine for decades.

(Additional reporting by Tife Owolabi and Ulf Laessing; editing by Angus MacSwan and Jason Neely)

Millions of Nigerians face hunger in wasteland recaptured from fighters

A family is pictured in their straw grass home at the IDP camp at Gamboru, Borno, Nigeria April 27, 2017. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

By Alexis Akwagyiram

BANKI, Nigeria (Reuters) – When he heard that the Nigerian army had declared his family’s home town of Banki free from Boko Haram militants and safe to return, Bukar Abdulkadir did all he could to bring his family back to the place they had fled three years ago.

It took nine months of hunger, selling most of the food rations they received at their refugee camp in Cameroon, to save up for the cost of a two-day journey in a lorry container back across the border into northern Nigeria.

But instead of returning to till the familiar fields of home, they came back to a desolate wasteland littered with the rubble of destroyed buildings and burnt cars, where they were herded into a crowded camp by soldiers.

The once thriving town, which the army retook in September 2015, has been razed to the ground. Along with some 32,000 other homeless inhabitants, Abdulkadir’s family are now confined to the camp amid the ruins, guarded by troops who do not let them out unescorted, officially to protect them from explosives strewn across farmland.

“I can’t provide for my family because I can’t farm,” said Abdulkadir. “If the market opened I could do something to make their lives better,” he added in a voice cracking with emotion as he gazed at his children.

Nigeria’s security forces have succeeded in recapturing most of the territory once held by Boko Haram Islamist militants after years of an insurgency in which civilians were often the targets. But instead of bringing a joyous end to the conflict, the victories have revealed communities gripped by hunger.

Some 4.7 million people in northeast Nigeria depend on food aid, some of which is blocked by militant attacks, some held up by a lack of funding and some, diplomats say, stolen before it can reach those in need.

Millions of Nigerians may soon be in peril if the situation deteriorates, as authorities expect, when the five-month rainy season begins in May and makes farming impossible in areas that are now accessible.

This part of Nigeria is the western edge of an arc of hunger stretching across the breadth of Africa through South Sudan, Somalia and into Yemen on the Arabian peninsula. The United Nations believes as many as 20 million people are in danger in what could become the world’s worst famine for decades.

ALREADY BROKEN

“This camp is already broken,” said a field worker responsible for food distribution to children at the camp in Banki, asking not to be identified while he discussed the conditions endured by residents of the destroyed town.

Three hundred women and children were queuing for water in the scorching sun. Fatima Mallam, a widowed mother of three, said she had to wait five hours. The field worker said that was now normal for the camp. There are only 14 working boreholes to provide water for the 32,000 people.

“When the rainy season comes there is likely to be an outbreak of cholera and other diseases because people defecate in the open,” the worker said.

Lured by news of the army retaking territory lost to Boko Haram, some 152,000 people like Abdulkadir and his family have returned from neighboring Cameroon and Niger since the start of the year, according to the U.N. refugee agency.

But as Boko Haram continues to stage suicide bombings and hit-and-run attacks, most end up in already stretched camps unable to resume farming, the main activity in the northeast.

Thousands of others are arriving in camps daily from parts of the northeast where the army, aided by troops from neighboring countries, has pushed the Islamist militants out of most of the territory they controlled until early 2015.

At another northeastern camp, in Gamboru-Ngala, army units were trying to accommodate a new influx of thousands.

“We only have four nurses and one medical doctor to cater for this number of people so it is not enough to deal with their medical challenges,” said Army Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Omoke.

“There is no secondary health facility in the whole of Ngala local government,” he said. “A lot of people come in – shelter is a major challenge now.”

Aid agencies and military officials say the rainy season, beginning in the next few weeks, will make many roads impassable, increasing the dependence on food aid as farming halts and the movement of goods becomes restricted.

Cesar Tishilombo, who heads the sub-office of the U.N. refugee agency in Maiduguri, a state capital, said up to three million people were at risk of famine in areas recently recaptured from Boko Haram. Aid agencies working in Nigeria faced a funding crisis, he said.

“The pledge has been $1 billion plus. People have pledged but the promises are not translating into cash,” he said, adding that his agency had received just $11 million of the $70 million it had requested.

Western diplomats say corruption and government mismanagement are partly to blame for the failure of aid to reach those in need.

“Nobody knows who is in control,” said one diplomat, describing overlapping systems of authority at the local, state and federal levels that make it difficult to organize aid.

“There is corruption at every level, from drivers up to state and federal government,” said another diplomat, adding by way of example that 12 trucks might leave a depot with food aid and only two arrive at distribution centers to feed the hungry.

A spokesman for President Muhammadu Buhari declined to comment on the assertions of corruption in aid deliveries, but the president has acknowledged that graft is a serious problem hindering recovery in areas recaptured from the militants.

Last month the authorities launched an investigation into allegations that funds allocated to contractors to help rebuild the insurgency-hit region had been misused. The presidency said the investigation was linked to another probe into $43 million in cash found in a flat in the commercial capital Lagos.

(Additional reporting by Felix Onuah and Paul Carsten in Abuja; editing by Peter Graff)

Nigeria’s Buhari orders corruption probe over humanitarian funds

FILE PHOTO: Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari speaks during his meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama at the United Nations General Assembly September 20, 2016. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

ABUJA (Reuters) – Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari on Wednesday ordered an investigation into corruption allegations against a senior civil servant related to the use of funds intended for handling a humanitarian crisis in the northeast of the country.

The director general of the National Intelligence Agency was also ordered to be suspended after the discovery of more than $43 million in an apartment complex in Lagos in what the presidency described as a “related development”.

Buhari suspended David Babachir Lawal, secretary to the Nigerian government, and ordered a probe into contracts awarded under the Presidential Initiative on the North East (PINE), his spokesman said in a statement.

Lawal, a Buhari appointee, told reporters he had not been informed of his suspension until asked about it by the media. He made no further comment. PINE did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

PINE was set up to coordinate the government’s response to the humanitarian crisis in the northeast where 4.7 million people, many of them refugees from the Islamist insurgency by Boko Haram, are on the brink of famine and survive on rations.

Alleged corruption and mismanagement have threatened to intensify the situation, one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises, say critics of the government’s handling of the northeast.

Analysts warned for years the insurgency – which has killed more than 20,000 people and forced 2 million to flee their homes since 2009 – would spill over, but critics say authorities and some aid agencies were slow to address humanitarian issues.

The presidency statement said it had also ordered an “investigation into the discovery of large amounts of foreign and local currencies” by the financial crimes agency in a residential property in commercial capital Lagos, in what it called a “related development”, without giving further details.

It said the National Intelligence Agency, Nigeria’s equivalent of the CIA, had said the money belonged to it. It said the investigation would inquire “whether or not there has been a breach of the law or security procedure in obtaining custody and use of the funds”.

The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) said last week, on its official Facebook page, it had discovered $43.4 million, 27,800 pounds and 23.2 million naira in cash in the same Lagos apartment complex identified in the presidency statement.

The presidency statement said Buhari, who took office in May 2015 on promises to crack down on corruption, ordered the suspension of the director general of the NIA, Ambassador Ayo Oke, pending the outcome of the investigation.

Reuters could not immediately reach Oke for comment. The NIA did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

A three-man committee, headed by the vice president, is to conduct both investigations and submit its report to the president within 14 days.

(Reporting by Felix Onuah and Alexis Akwagyiram; Additional reporting by Paul Carsten; Editing by Alison Williams)

Exclusive: With Nigeria’s northeast facing famine, WFP funds could dry up in weeks – sources

Children attend a class at a primary school in Muna Garage IDP camp, Maiduguri, Nigeria November 7, 2016. UNICEF/Naftalin/Handout via REUTERS

By Paul Carsten

ABUJA (Reuters) – The United Nations’ World Food Programme could in a few weeks run out of funding to feed millions living on the brink of famine in Nigeria, four people familiar with the matter said, intensifying one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises.

In the northeast, 4.7 million people, many of them refugees from the conflict with Islamist insurgency Boko Haram, need rations to survive, according to the World Food Programme (WFP), one of the main aid groups handing out food. Many of those living in camps for displaced people say they already barely get enough to eat.

“With the money they have right now, and if they won’t cut rations, they can only go to May 18,” one person said, citing talks with the WFP, who asked to not be named because they were not authorized to speak to media.

The WFP was “reasonably certain” it would get enough funding to last until late June, the person added.

“All humanitarian crises globally are woefully underfunded and for WFP Nigeria is in one of the worst situations for funding,” a WFP spokeswoman said.

“We are trying to save lives. We need over the next six months $207 million for Nigeria. At the moment the program is 13 percent funded for 2017. It’s extremely low. Of the four countries facing famine it is the least funded.”

The conflict with Islamist insurgency Boko Haram, which seeks to establish a caliphate in Nigeria’s northeast, began in 2009 and shows no sign of ending. It has killed more than 20,000 people and displaced more than two million.

Nigeria’s northeast is now teetering on the brink of famine, aid organizations say, pointing to two years of missed crop harvests in what was once a breadbasket for the country, and the high likelihood of missing a third.

The approaching rainy season increases the risk of disease spreading, especially within camps for the displaced, adding more stress to efforts to respond to the humanitarian crisis.

The wet season also means tens of thousands of refugees are attempting to return home to farm, despite facing serious dangers, saying there is not enough food provided in the camps to sustain them.

CONTINGENCY PLAN

In a meeting on Monday with the WFP in Nigeria’s capital Abuja, donor countries and organizations, criticized the group for not having a satisfactory contingency plan if funding starts to dry up, two of the people with knowledge of the talks said.

The WFP spokeswoman said meetings with donors were genial, open and frank.

“When we are funded and able to get out to the field we are getting to people. This crisis can be averted and we want people to understand this will work if it’s funded. We can avert the famine.”

The U.S. Embassy in Abuja said the U.S. government was working “urgently and cooperatively with our partners in an effort to address the critical humanitarian needs in northeastern Nigeria”.

“There is not adequate funding to sustain the global response to those needs here. Additional resources must be found urgently so that feeding does not stop,” the embassy said in emailed comments to Reuters.

The WFP and donors have also locked horns over who is to blame for the lack of funding reaching the aid organization, with the U.N. agency saying the money promised has not been released to them and donors arguing that basic paperwork still has not been submitted, the two people said.

“There’s a dark cloud hanging over them that they’ll cut rations,” one person said. “It shouldn’t be this way.”

The WFP, along with other groups, has come under fire in Nigeria for its slow reaction to the humanitarian crisis in the northeast, only launching a full-fledged response last year while other aid organizations had been in the country since at least 2014.

On Wednesday, the U.N. children’s fund said its response to the crisis “remains severely underfunded”, a warning echoed by many other aid groups.

The United Nations says it needs $1.5 billion in humanitarian aid this year for the Lake Chad region – which spreads across parts of Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad – and $457 million had been pledged for 2017 by late February.

Despite the Nigerian army saying the insurgency is on the run, large parts of the country’s northeast, particularly in Borno state, remain under threat from Boko Haram. Suicide bombings and gun attacks have increased in the region since the end of the rainy season late last year.

(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Susan Thomas)

Nigeria in talks to release remaining captive Chibok girls

Campaigners from the #BringBackOurGirls group protest in Nigeria's capital Abuja to mark 1,000 days since over 200 schoolgirls were kidnapped from their secondary school in Chibok by Islamist sect Boko Haram, Nigeria January 8, 2017. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

ABUJA (Reuters) – Nigeria is in talks to release the remaining captive Chibok girls, its president said on Thursday, a day before the third anniversary of the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls by Islamist insurgents Boko Haram.

The kidnapping is one of the most infamous of Boko Haram’s insurgency, now in its eighth year and with little sign of an end. More than 20 girls were released in October in a deal brokered by the International Red Cross. Others have escaped or been rescued but 195 are believed to be still in captivity.

“(The government) is in constant touch through negotiations, through local intelligence to secure the release of the remaining girls and other abducted persons unharmed,” President Muhammadu Buhari said in a statement.

“We have reached out to their captors, through local and international intermediaries, and we are ever ready to do everything within our means to ensure the safe release of all the girls,” he said.

Buhari’s government has repeatedly promised to secure the release of the Chibok girls, and in October the president said efforts would be “redoubled”.

At the time, the presidency also said Boko Haram was willing to negotiate the release of 83 more girls, though none have been let go so far, spurring criticism from campaign groups over the government’s handling of the talks.

Although the Chibok girls are the most high-profile case — triggering a worldwide social media campaign — Boko Haram has kidnapped thousands of adults and children, many of whose cases are neglected, say aid organisations.

The use of kidnapped children as suicide bombers by the insurgents of Boko Haram has surged this year, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said on Wednesday.

The militants have killed more than 20,000 people and displaced more than two million during their insurgency aimed at creating an Islamic caliphate in northeast Nigeria.

Despite the army saying the insurgency is on the run, large parts of northeast Nigeria, particularly in Borno state, remain under threat from Boko Haram. Suicide bombings and gun attacks have increased in the region since the end of the rainy season late last year.

(Reporting by Felix Onuah; Writing by Paul Carsten; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)

Dozens of Eritrean and Nigerian former Islamic State captives freed in Libya

FILE PHOTO: An Eritrean migrant touches a ring on her hand at a military building in Misrata, Libya, November 6, 2016. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny

MISRATA, Libya (Reuters) – Libyan authorities released on Wednesday 28 Eritreans and seven Nigerians who were captured and enslaved by Islamic State in Sirte and had been held in detention since the jihadist group lost the city in December.

The group, all but two of whom are women and children, escaped from Sirte, a former Islamic State stronghold in central Libya, while forces from the nearby city of Misrata battled to oust the militants late last year.

Some of the women were on their way to Europe when Islamic State fighters kidnapped and held them as sex slaves.

After they escaped from Sirte, they were investigated for possible ties to the group and held for several months in a Misrata prison.

Reuters has documented how Islamic State used enslaved refugee women to reward its fighters in Libya. In stories published last year, the women recounted how the group forced them to convert to Islam and sold them as sex slaves.

In November, a Reuters reporter visited some of the captives at a military post in Misrata. Their new captors, the women said then, starved and humiliated them. At least one woman, a 16-year-old, was pregnant and in need of urgent care.

The Libyan attorney-general’s office announced that it had cleared the women of any wrongdoing in mid-February, but their release was delayed for several more weeks, with no explanation.

On Wednesday, they were received by staff from the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) and the Libyan Red Crescent, before being taken to a shelter for medical checks.

“I’m very happy, I can’t describe how I feel, but I am very happy, I can start a new life and see my family again,” one 14-year-old Eritrean girl told Reuters before leaving the prison with the rest of the group on a Red Crescent bus.

A UNHCR official said the entire group had scabies, but otherwise appeared to be in reasonable physical condition.

The agency expects to resettle the Eritreans as refugees.

“We will send them to a safe house where they can be treated if they need medical treatment, and receive assistance from us, and be protected,” said Samer Haddadin, head of the UNHCR’s Libya mission.

“At the same time we will be processing them for refugee status determination … and we are doing this to make sure we can find a resettlement country for those who meet the resettlement criteria.”

The Nigerians, five women and two children, will be able to apply for asylum or be offered repatriation.

Dozens of women and children who escaped from Sirte or were picked up there by Libyan forces are still being held in Misrata. They include Libyans, Tunisians, and nationals from several sub-Saharan African countries. A group of Filipino nurses were freed in February.

Islamic State took control of Sirte in early 2015, turning the coastal city into its most important base outside Syria and Iraq and stationing hundreds of foreign fighters there. It took Misrata-led forces almost seven months to recapture the city.

(Reporting by Ayman al-Sahli in Misrata and Aidan Lewis in Tunis; Writing by Aidan Lewis; Editing by Louise Ireland)

Boko Haram video denies claims of starvation in northeast Nigeria forest

KADUNA, Nigeria (Reuters) – The faction of the Islamist militant group Boko Haram led by Abubakar Shekau released a video on Tuesday denying that fighters are dying of hunger in its northeast Nigerian forest base.

Nigeria’s military last week said it was “ransacking” territory it said it had recaptured from Boko Haram in the hunt for Shekau, who leads one of two main branches of the jihadist group. It also said he might be hiding in the Sambisa forest.

Large parts of northeast Nigeria, particularly in Borno state, remain under threat from Boko Haram as suicide bombings and gun attacks have increased in the region since the end of the rainy season late last year.

“There is no food that we lack in this forest of Sambisa. It is not true that we have run out of food supply and that we are being killed by hunger,” said an unidentified man with a rifle, flanked by others carrying guns, in the five-minute video.

Nigeria’s army said in December that it had pushed Boko Haram out of the Sambisa forest, a vast former colonial game reserve that was the group’s stronghold, in an operation to reclaim territory lost to the Islamist insurgency since 2009.

Boko Haram split last year, with one faction led by Shekau operating from the forest and the other, allied to Islamic State and led by Abu Musab al-Barnawi, based in the Lake Chad region.

“We urge all members to be one hundred percent loyal to him [Shekau],” said the man in the video. “It is not true that you killed Shekau,” he said, referring to previous claims by the Nigerian military that he had been fatally wounded.

Shekau did not appear in the video, which was circulated on social media on Tuesday.

Boko Haram has killed more than 15,000 people and forced more than two million to flee their homes during its insurgency aimed at creating an Islamic state governed by a strict interpretation of sharia law in Africa’s most populous nation.

(Reporting by Garba Muhammad; Writing by Alexis Akwagyiram; Editing by Andrew Bolton)