With Nigeria's presidential election fast approaching on Saturday amid an aggressive campaign to recover territory seized by the terrorist insurgency Boko Haram, details have emerged this week concerning the alleged abduction of hundreds of people from the northeastern town of Damasak.
Residents of Damasak told Reuters on Tuesday that the Islamist militants had abducted more than 400 women and children and killed roughly 50 of them as they retreated from the town, which was won by troops from Chad and Niger earlier this month. Units from those countries are part of a multinational force combating Boko Haram in territory along Nigeria's northern border.
Nigerian government spokesperson Mike Omeri confirmed the reports to the Associated Press on Wednesday, noting that locals had reported that as many as 500 people were taken, some of them snatched from primary schools, as the soldiers approached the town.
"They took children and adults that they are using as shields to protect themselves from the menacing advance of troops," Omeri said.
Upon seizing the town, which is located in the state of Borno near the border with Niger, troops encountered a mass grave containing at least 70 bodies that are suspected of being victims of Boko Haram.
"Damask was liberated about eight to ten days ago by Chadian or Nigerien forces, and the kidnappings happened before they came into town," Ryan Cummings, chief security analyst at the crisis management assistance company red24 and a member of the Nigeria Security Network, told VICE News. "Boko Haram was probably privy to the advance and proceeded to flee the town, but obviously took as many hostages as possible."
"It appears that only about 50 of the town's residents have stayed behind," he added, and they were evidently unable to get this information out until now. It is unclear if the government was unaware of the kidnappings or simply not keen to publicize them ahead of the election. Nigerian authorities commented on the allegations only after media reports surfaced this week.
Details in Nigeria's long-running battle against Boko Haram, which has now stretched into its sixth year, are notoriously hard to verify. The insurgency preferred until recently to engage in a murderously effective strategy of terrorizing civilian and military targets with guerrilla attacks, but has lately attempted to capture and hold towns and cities. Reliably tracking the developments day-to-day is challenging — reports tend to derive from the accounts of traumatized refugees and residents, and the Nigerian government has been selective in its disclosures to the media.
In Damasak, it appears that the militants retreated without clashing with multinational forces, but not before exacting a brutal toll on locals. There is concern that Boko Haram's forces are regrouping in the area and will likely re-emerge — if not in Damasak, then elsewhere in the region.
Earlier this month, Boko Haram claimed allegiance to the Islamic State, the Sunni Islamist terrorist group that dubiously declared a "caliphate" last summer in large swaths of Syria and Iraq that it has occupied. The scheme inspired Boko Haram to announce the establishment of its own caliphate in northern Nigeria as well as a vicious effort to expand its holdings.
Though details of coordination between the two are scarce, an audio message was issued by a purported Islamic State spokesperson shortly after Boko Haram's pledge of allegiance.
"We announce to you to the good news of the expansion of the caliphate to West Africa," the statement said.
The Damask abductions fit into a pattern of mass abductions and slaughters by Boko Haram, which kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok last April. Most of the schoolgirls are still unaccounted for. A series of attacks carried out this year by young females in the northeast have raised fears that Boko Haram is strapping their student hostages with explosives and using them as suicide bombers.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has been heavily criticized for his handling of the insurgency, and for having to rely on neighboring countries to tackle the group. Nigeria's neighbors joined the fight once the militants began terrorizing civilians across the border.
Political analysts say Saturday's poll, pitting Jonathan with former military-dictator Muhammadu Buhari, is too close call. Presidential elections in Nigeria historically witness bouts of violence, and Boko Haram has threatened to target this year's vote.
The country's presidential election was originally scheduled for mid-February, but was postponed by the government just days before the intended date out of fear of violence. Critics of the government charged that Jonathan was merely undermining democracy and trying to maintain his vulnerable hold on power.
Attacks not directly related to the conflict with Boko Haram have already claimed the lives of at least 200 people this month in the states of Kaduna and Katsina. Post-election violence after Jonathan defeated Buhari in 2011 left more than 800 dead in northern Nigeria, according to Human Rights Watch.
On Wednesday, Jonathan's administration announced the total closure of all Nigeria's land and sea borders, ostensibly in an attempt to secure the country ahead of voting. Also on Wednesday, the Nigerian military announced that it had arrested two Al Jazeera journalists whom it claimedhad been found in "restricted areas" in Yobo and Borno state without clearance from officials.
"The motive, activities, and some materials in possession of these individuals are now being investigated," the Nigerian military said in a statement.
Boko Haram is estimated to have killed some 10,000 people last year, though government forces have also been documented committing atrocities in the fight in the country's northeast, including extrajudicial executions.
Cummings said that the state of affairs in Damasak, like many towns that have changed hands, remains tenuous. It is undetermined whether Chadian and Nigerian troops are meant to hold it, or if local Nigerian forces will arrive, allowing their allies to continue targeting Boko Haram elsewhere.
"We've obviously seen Boko Haram dislodged in parts of northeastern Nigeria, but I don't see that as tantamount to being defeated," Cummings remarked. "In many cases where towns have been liberated, there have been very few reports of Boko Haram casualties or detentions, and few accounts of top commanders being killed or captured."
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford