BAUCHI, Nigeria (AP) — Islamic militants again attacked the remote Nigerian town from which nearly 300 schoolgirls were kidnapped, Nigeria's military said Wednesday, resulting in a firefight that killed 12 soldiers and led angry troops to fire on a commanding officer.
Soldiers said the troops fired at a senior officer who came to pay respects to the killed soldiers, whose bodies were brought to a barracks in Maiduguri. The capital of northeastern Borno state is about 130 kilometers north of the town of Chibok, where the girls were abducted a month ago.
The incident is a sign of demoralization in the military that is in charge of the search operation for the abducted schoolgirls. The failure of Nigeria's government and military to find them after the April 15 mass abduction has brought mounting national and international outrage and forced Nigeria's government to accept international help.
Nigeria's Ministry of Defense played down the incident, saying soldiers "registered their anger about the incident by firing into the air. The situation has since been brought under control, as there is calm in the cantonment …"
But soldiers who were at the scene at Mailamari Barracks said infuriated troopers fired directly at the vehicle carrying Maj. Gen. Ahmadu Mohammed, the general officer commanding the army's 7 Division. He was not hit.
The witnesses said the soldiers were angry because they wanted to spend the night in a village and told their command the road was dangerous after the attack just outside Chibok. They were ordered to travel instead and were ambushed, with at least 12 killed. The soldiers spoke on condition of anonymity because they want to keep their jobs.
The Ministry of Defense said in a statement that four soldiers who were on patrol around Chibok were killed. The military often exaggerates the number of enemy killed and downplays its own death toll.
Vigilante groups have been springing up in northern Nigeria over the past year amid accusations the military is not acting fast enough against the Islamic extremists.
In Kalabalge, a village about 250 kilometers (155 miles) from the Maiduguri, where the terrorist network was born, residents said they took matters into their own hands.
On Tuesday morning, after learning about an impending attack by the militants, villagers ambushed two trucks with gunmen, residents and a security official told The Associated Press. At least 10 militants were detained, and scores were killed, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to give interviews to journalists. It was not immediately clear where the detainees were being held.
Kalabalge trader Ajid Musa said that after residents organized the vigilante group, "it is impossible" for militants to successfully stage attacks there.
"That is why most attacks by the Boko Haram on our village continued (to) fail because they cannot come in here and start shooting and killing people," he said. Earlier this year in other parts of Borno, extremists launched more attacks in what some feared was retaliation over the vigilante groups.
Borno is one of three Nigerian states where President Goodluck Jonathan has imposed a state of emergency, giving the military special powers to fight the Islamic extremist group, whose stronghold is in northeast Nigeria.
Britain and the U.S. are now actively involved in the effort to rescue the missing girls. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said FBI agents and a hostage negotiating team are in Nigeria now, providing technology and other materials and working with "our Nigerian counterparts to be as helpful as we possibly can." U.S. reconnaissance aircraft are flying over Nigeria in search of the missing girls.
At least 276 of the schoolgirls are still held captive, with the group's leader threatening to sell them into slavery. In a video released on Monday, he offered to release the girls in exchange for the freedom of jailed Boko Haram members.
A Nigerian government official has said "all options" are now open — including negotiations or a possible military operation with foreign help — in efforts find the missing girls.
Nigerians dressed in red shirts and holding banners that read #BringBackOurGirls marched on the streets of Abuja, the capital, Tuesday toward the governor's lodge, calling for more to be done to secure the release of the students.
Borno state Gov. Kashim Shettima addressed the crowd after having been in Maiduguri, watching the video with parents and teachers who traveled there to identify their daughters or students.
"They were able to identify 54 students by name," he said, adding that he had also given the military reports of sightings by villagers of the girls in the countryside.
"How do we get back our girls alive, let us not derail from that focus," he said.
Jonathan this week sought to extend the state of emergency for six more months in the states of Yobe, Adamawa and Borno.
That move is being opposed by some leaders in northern Nigeria who say the emergency measure has brought no success. Yobe Governor Ibrahim Gaidam said in a statement received Wednesday that the state of emergency period has been "marked more by failure than by success."
The measure was imposed May 14, 2013, and extended in December.
During this period Nigerian government forces have been accused of committing rights abuses, charges denied by the military, and the threat from Boko Haram has appeared to intensify. The rights group Amnesty International says Nigeria's military had advance warning of a possible Boko Haram attack before the April 15 kidnappings in Chibok but did not react because of their fear of engaging the extremists.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the top State Department official for Africa, said in a web chat Wednesday that "part of our work with the (Nigerian) government is to help train members of their security how not to commit human rights violations."
The Pentagon said Wednesday the U.S. is using surveillance drones to aid in the search for the kidnapped Nigerian girls, and almost 300 Marines have been moved to a naval air station in Sicily in response to the growing unrest in Africa. A senior U.S. official says at least one Global Hawk surveillance drone is in use, in addition to manned MC-12 aircraft.
Boko Haram has killed more than 1,500 people this year. Although the security forces have forced the militants out of urban centers, they have struggled for months to dislodge them from hideouts in mountain caves and the Sambisa forest.
Last week, as world attention focused on the abducted schoolgirls, Islamic militants attacked the town of Gamboru, in Borno state, and killed at least 50 people, according to residents. A senator from the area has said up to 300 were killed in that attack.
President Jonathan will meet with heads of state and representatives from Benin, Chad, Niger and Cameroon this weekend in Paris to discuss the fight against Boko Haram.
Adamu reported from Yobe, Nigeria.