Hundreds of Boko Haram fighters invaded the Nigerian city of Gombe on Saturday, the latest incursion in the Islamist militant group's growing insurgency. Witnesses told AFP that soon after Boko Haram fighters stormed the city, they opened fire and threw leaflets that called on locals to boycott the country's upcoming national elections.
Residents said that they were warned to evacuate the city prior to the attack. "I received calls from friends in Kwadam, which is five kilometers away, warning me to leave because Boko Haram were on their way," witness Kabiru Na-Gwandu, who lives near the city, told AFP.
There were conflicting accounts about the Nigerian military's response. According to a security official speaking to Reuters, the military successfully fought back against the militants and drove them from the city. Other witnesses, however, told AFP that Nigerian security forces did not seem to put up any resistance.
Boko Haram fighters invaded Gombe shortly after they overran a checkpoint outside the city, causing residents to flee into the surrounding area. It's not immediately clear if anyone was killed.
Boko Haram has routinely launched attacks in northeast Nigeria throughout its violent insurgency over the past six years. The group has previously targeted Gombe with suicide bombings, the first of which took place in February 2012 and killed 14 people. Saturday's invasion is the first direct attack on the city by the group.
According to residents, the militants had been steadily advancing on Gombe in recent days and had staked out at a village 36 kilometers (22 miles) outside the city, where they informed locals of the impending attack.
Witness Mustapha Baba told AFP that a military checkpoint outside the city was "curiously abandoned by soldiers on Thursday."
Last week, Nigeria announced plans to postpone until March national elections that were supposed to be held today. The government cited security concerns stemming from Boko Haram's insurgency as the reason for the delay.
The Nigerian military, along with troops from neighboring countries, has stepped up an aerial and ground offensive against Boko Haram in recent weeks. Last week, leaders from Benin, Cameroon, Niger, Nigeria, and Chad formed a coalition force called the FMM (Force Multinationale Mixte) to fight the group.
The formation of the regional military alliance marks a turning point in the fight against Boko Haram, which has taken control over wide swaths of territory in Nigeria and is now launching attacks over the border in neighboring countries.
Yesterday, Boko Haram carried out its first attack in neighboring Chad, killing seven people. The Chadian army quickly fought back against the group, pushing them out of the village and killing two militants.
On Friday, members of Chad's military arrived in Cameroon as part of the regional effort to fight Boko Haram.
Boko Haram's ability to infiltrate villages along the border — demonstrated by yesterday's attack in Chad — has sparked fears that what started out as Nigeria-specific insurgency, might spill over and threaten the security of the entire region. Some 13,000 people have been killed since 2009 in the group's bloody uprising.
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