Cameroon says its troops have killed more than a hundred Boko Haram militants and then added a worrying dimension when the government said some Touareg fighters were among the dead.
According to Issa Tchiroma, Cameroon’s communication minister, two Touareg fighters were identified among the dead, the Financial Times reports.
If confirmed, the involvement of the Touareg, who are from much farther north in Mali and Niger, might go some way to explaining Boko Haram’s steady transformation and the apparently swelling number of fighters in its ranks.
Touareg fighters fought in former Libyan leader Muammer Gaddafi’s army and went on to lead the rebellion that in 2013 cut Mali in two.
The Cameroonian announcement followed news that a son of Olusegun Obasanjo, the former Nigerian president, has been shot and injured in an attempt by government forces to halt an onslaught by Islamist extremists in the remote and impoverished North East of the country.
After government forces reportedly allayed a looming threat to Maiduguri, capital of Borno State and a city of 2 million, with aerial bombardments on Boko Haram positions at the weekend, the battle has in recent days switched to another front, as the extremist group swept south into the neighbouring state of Adamawa.
Lieutenant Colonel Adeboye Obasanjo was leading a platoon fighting on Monday to counter the militants’ advance into Adamawa when he was hit, a member of his family told the Financial Times. “He was shot in the leg yesterday. He is going to be OK,” the cousin said.
The injury will resonate across Nigeria in part because of the role the former president played leading federal troops to victory during the 1967-1970 civil war, when the South East of the country broke away to form Biafra.
Nigeria’s territorial integrity is widely acknowledged to be under the greatest threat it has been since the Biafran war, with counterterrorism experts warning that Boko Haram is coming closer to achieving its aim of carving out an Islamic state from parts of Nigeria’s impoverished North East.
In recent weeks, the group has proved increasingly successful at holding on to territory including several large towns.
General Obasanjo, who was military ruler in the late 1970s and served two elected terms as president when the army handed power back to civilians in 1999, has been fiercely critical of the government’s handling of the insurgency. Earlier this year, he described President Goodluck Jonathan as “overwhelmed”.
Lt Col Obasanjo, in his late 30s, bears a strong resemblance to his father. His engagement on the front line is another reminder to elite Nigerians of the threat posed by the insurgency to the fabric of the nation – Africa’s most populous and the continent’s largest economy – even if much of the fighting is taking place in the remote North East.
A BBC journalist in Yola, capital of Adamawa State, said there was panic in the city as the extremists marched south, capturing four towns and a string of surrounding villages on their way, and now threatening the large trading town of Mubi.
Nigeria security officials claim dozens of Boko Haram terrorists have been killed since a major counter offensive was launched last week with support from fighter jets.
Boko Haram has recently developed from a guerrilla outfit carrying out vicious hit and run attacks on remote villages, slaughtering inhabitants, abducting schoolgirls and staging terrorist attacks further afield into a group with more conventional capabilities, fighting with heavy weaponry and armoured vehicles to hold on to territory.
Counterterrorism experts in Nigeria and further afield have started comparing the lightning advances made by the group, since it broke out of mountain and forest bases on the border with Cameroon a few months ago, to those made this year in Iraq and Syria by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis).
In response, Jonathan has been intensifying diplomatic efforts to strengthen cooperation with neighbouring countries and other regional security forces in countering the threat.
He met President Idriss Déby of Chad on Tuesday. Fighting alongside the French army, seasoned Chadian soldiers proved highly effective last year in taking on the Islamist-backed rebellion in Mali.