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Hundreds of Bodies Found in Nigerian Town Thought to Be Victims of Boko Haram Massacre

The grisly discovery underscores the grave threat still posed by the Islamic militant group in Nigeria, where government troops have been claiming victories.
Photo by Jerome Delay/AP

Several hundred badly decomposed bodies have been discovered in Damasak, northeastern Nigeria, a town recently recaptured from the Islamist terror group Boko Haram.

The corpses of men, women and children were found by local government representatives that visited Damasak to assess the level of damage caused by the militants, following a successful military operation to free the town from the rebels' clutches on March 9. Some littered the streets, while others were buried in shallow graves, according to local government spokesperson Babagana Mustapha.

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"Those bodies in shallow graves have badly decomposed while those found on the streets were desiccated from [exposure to] dry winds," Mustapha told CNN. The number of corpses is thought to number as many as 400. Troops had previously found the bodies of around 70 people in a mass grave under a bridge, shortly after the town was liberated from Boko Haram, who took it over last November.

Nigerian political analyst Chris Ngwodo told VICE News that while details were still unclear, the dead appeared to be victims of a Boko Haram massacre. The latest discovery "underscores the challenge of truly beating Boko Haram in such a vast land area with the military needing more manpower to occupy freed places until basic order can be restored to those areas," he said.

In March it was reported that Boko Haram had kidnapped hundreds of women and girls from Damasak, though the Nigerian government denied this.

Related: The girls who escaped: One year after the Boko Haram kidnapping, some Chibok schoolgirls have left Nigeria. Read more here.

The conflict in northern Nigeria has escalated in recent years as Boko Haram have continued their quest to establish a caliphate.

On Monday, newly elected president Muhammadu Buhari called the group a "fraud," and said it could be defeated by "denying it a recruitment base."

"No religion allows for the killing of children in school dormitories, in markets and places of worship," he said. "They have nothing to do with religion. They are terrorists and we are going to deal with them as we deal with terrorists."

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A former military ruler, Buhari was elected in March to succeed president Goodluck Jonathan, who was criticized for failing to adequately counter the Boko Haram threat.

Following his win, Buhari made a televised speech in which he stated: "In tackling the insurgency, we have a tough and urgent job to do. Boko Haram will soon know the strength of our collective will. We should spare no effort until we defeat terrorism."

Nigeria's presidential election — originally scheduled for February 14 — was pushed back by six weeks to allow the country's military time to launch an offensive on the insurgents. Troops from Chad, Cameroon, and Niger have joined Nigerian troops in a coalition effort that has claimed major victories since February, claiming to have won back various areas under militant control.

But a lull in violence in recent weeks ended over the weekend when Boko Haram fighters disguised as soldiers shot dead 21 civilians trying to get back to their hometown to collect food supplies, according to Baba Nuhu, a local government official in Yobe state. This was followed by an attack on Karamga island in Lake Chad on Saturday. A group of Boko Haram militants traveled across the lake in motorized canoes to get to the island where they began shooting at soldiers and civilians, dozens of whom were reportedly killed, according to AFP.

Related: The war against Boko Haram (full length). Watch here.

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On Tuesday, the Nigerian Army published a statement criticizing media reporting on the conflict, and specifically any reports that Boko Haram were controlling Mafa town in Borno State — which it described as false.

"This is apparently the work of terrorists sympathizers or propagandists," the statement read.

The statement also lambasted claims that Nigerian troops had retreated from Sambisa forest, long believed to be a stronghold of Boko Haram and thought to be one location where the hundreds of schoolgirls kidnapped by the group from the village of Chibok in April could have been taken.

It said that, on the contrary, "the operation [there] is progressing and gaining increasing momentum towards clearing all terrorists hideouts in the forest."

Reports had previously emerged claiming that landmines had caused enough casualties to temporarily halt the offensive.

Related: Defeating Boko Haram has less to do with guns than you might think. Read more here.

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd