A major town in Nigeria’s troubled northeast has been taken over by Boko Haram in what local officials said was perhaps the Islamist militant sect’s most significant victory yet in a five-year campaign of violence and terror.
As many as 15,000 people, or nearly all of the residents, have fled the town of Damboa after it was attacked over the weekend, officials said, leaving behind dozens of bodies in the streets and the Islamists’ black flag flying overhead.
Officials said at least 100 people were killed in the attack. Damboa is on a major north-south road from the Borno State capital, Maiduguri, and is just a few miles from Chibok, the village where hundreds of schoolgirls — who are still missing — were kidnapped in April.
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Until recently, there had been a military post at the edge of Damboa, normally a bustling, muddy market town. But the Boko Haram fighters met with little resistance from Nigeria’s Army during the weekend assault, officials said.
“This is the first major town that has fallen to them, and it is located on a strategic road,” Gov. Kashim Shettima of Borno State said in a telephone interview from Maiduguri on Monday night. “It is a very major setback,” the governor said. The residents of Damboa “have all fled for now,” he said. “They have all fled.”
Mr. Shettima added that “the Boko Haram have sacked the town. They have hoisted their own flag. It has virtually become theirs for now,” he said. “We are being inundated by an avalanche of refugees from Damboa in Biu” — a nearby town — “and Maiduguri.”
The takeover of Damboa was the latest defeat for a Nigerian military that has proved unable to stem repeated attacks on civilians by Boko Haram this year. “Honestly, they were completely routed,” one official in the area said of the latest attack, asking not to be identified because of the danger of retribution by the military. Human Rights Watch said last week that an estimated 2,053 people have been killed by the insurgents in the first six months of this year alone. Damboa’s capture was described by some officials as an ominous portent for that part of the country.
“No town is safe as of now,” said Senator Ahmed Zannah, who represents the area in Nigeria’s National Assembly. “It’s horrible, really horrible,” he said. “There is nobody in that town now. The dead bodies littered the streets.”
Mr. Zannah said he had heard reports that the military intended to stage a counterattack on Damboa on Tuesday. This could not be confirmed Monday night.
The military’s inability to protect civilians from Boko Haram has been highlighted by the kidnapping of the Chibok schoolgirls. Officials appear to be no closer to rescuing the girls than they were at the outset of the abductions. Indeed, as anger at the Nigerian government has mounted, the official response has been to lash out at critics — the seizure of critical newspapers, for instance, or harassment of antigovernment protest leaders.
On Monday, Nigerian news media reported that a prominent leader in the protests over the missing girls, Obi Ezekwisili, a former World Bank vice president, was arrested by the Nigerian secret police at the airport in the country’s capital, Abuja, as she tried to board a flight to England. She was later released, according to the reports.