Boko Haram landmines slow down Nigeria's offensives

Maj. General Chris Olukolade: speaks with Reuters

Nigeria’s military says its final push to clear the Islamist Boko Haram militants from their forest hideouts is being hampered by landmines.

“Everywhere they have their havens, they have mined it all around,” Major General Chris Olukolade, spokesman for Nigeria’s defence headquarters, told Reuters in an interview on Saturday.

Boko Haram grabbed a swathe of Nigeria’s northeast bigger than Belgium in 2014 and caused a global outcry when it abducted over 200 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok.

A counter-attack was launched in February after a six-year insurgency that killed thousands and forced more than 1.5 million people from their homes — too late to save the presidency of Goodluck Jonathan who lost a March election to Muhammadu Buhari who vowed to get tougher on Boko Haram.

The Nigerian army says Boko Haram has now been pushed into the vast Sambisa forest in eastern Borno state. The group has made no public comment since its last audio clip, in early March, a pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State group that has seized swathes of Syria and Iraq.

The militant group was not available for comment. It communicates erratically via hard to verify videos posted online or sent to a few journalists.

Nigeria launched a ground offensive into Sambisa last month following aerial bombardments and says over 13 Boko Haram camps have since been dismantled.

“The Sambisa forest is another place that is seriously mined … A major obstacle to the move,” Olukolade said.

“By intelligence reports, we have many more (militant camps) and they must be destroyed.”

Boko Haram has been pushed back before but Olukolade said he hoped the military would be able to hold its gains through aggressive patrols and now that neighbours Cameroon, Niger and Chad were combatting the militants.

“This tendency to escape into safe havens out of Nigeria is becoming very remote. The likelihood of them surviving this assault and coming back is low,” Olukolade said.

Unlike in recent months when troops from Niger and Chad were operating inside Nigeria to help the counter-insurgency, Olukolade said there was no significant presence of foreign soldiers on Nigerian soil any more and only the Nigerian military was involved in the Sambisa offensive.

Over the last week, the army has freed three sets of women and children, numbering over 500, who were being held in the Sambisa forest. Amnesty International said last month that around 2,000 women and girls had been captured and forced to be sex slaves, fighters and cooks or had been executed.

Olukolade said some of the captives had not been fully identified, giving rise to hope that some of the still-missing Chibok girls may be among them. Amnesty called on Nigeria not to exacerbate abductees’ trauma by holding them too long.

“We are screening them to make sure they are not combatants, to extract intelligence,” Olukolade said.