Tragedy struck on Saturday when terrorists loyal to Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) killed a brigadier general and some soldiers in Borno State during a confrontation with Nigerian troops, who battled to avert attack by the terrorists.
The military authorities in Abuja confirmed the development in a statement yesterday and said many terrorists were also killed and their fighting equipment destroyed.
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Brig-Gen. Dzarma Zirkusu, who was the Commander of the 28 Task Force Brigade, Chibok, was on a reinforcement mission to Askira in Borno South which was under siege by terrorists when he was ambushed.
Three other soldiers in the convoy of the general were also killed by the assailants who reportedly waylaid them outside Askira town.
President Muhammadu Buhari and Borno State governor, Prof Babagana Zulum, in separate statements last night mourned the fallen heroes, while expressing grief over the incident.
The President, in a statement issued Saturday by his media aide, Garba Shehu, said the deceased paid the supreme sacrifice in a very rare display of gallantry as they tried to help their compatriots in the war against terrorists.
A source said hundreds of terrorists had earlier stormed a military Super Camp in Askira, where they killed an operation commander and some soldiers and also destroyed some fighting equipment; hence the reinforcement of troops from nearby formations.
They reportedly went to the military formation with sophisticated weapons including gun trucks and mine resistance vehicles.
At around 9pm yesterday, a senior government official in Borno told our correspondent that the terrorists who had been dislodged had returned to Askira for another bout.
“They are currently engaging the troops,” he said.
Highest officer to die in line of duty
General Zirkusu was the highest military officer that lost his life in a face-to-face encounter with terrorists since the Boko Haram elements took up arms against the Nigerian State in 2009.
Many colonels, lieutenant colonels and majors, who normally lead troops for operations, have lost their lives in the line of duty but Zirkusu was the first fallen general.
Some officers and men of the Nigerian Armed Forces especially those in the North East described the demise of General Zirkusu as a monumental loss to the military establishment and Nigeria at large.
“This is a black Saturday,” said a colonel.
“I am devastated; I am deeply pained. Brigadier General Zirkusu was a patriotic Nigerian who fought for its liberation,” he said.
“He was true a general because he led by example,” another officer, a lieutenant colonel, said.
Residents of Chibok, which was his last place of posting, said he was a devout Nigerian who gave his all to his chosen career.
The general, who was from Adamawa State, was in January this year moved from Headquarters 1 Brigade, Gusau, to headquarters 28 Task Force Brigade, Chibok, as Commander.
How it happened – Army
A statement by the Nigerian Army spokesman, Onyeama Nwachukwu, said the troops in Askira had successfully defended their location and destroyed ISWAP equipment during the battle.
“Troops of Joint Task Force, North East Operation HADIN KAI have neutralized several Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) terrorists during a recent encounter in Askira Uba Local Government Area of Borno State.
“In the fierce encounter which is still raging as at the time of filing this report, troops supported by the Air Component of OPHK have destroyed five A-Jet, two A-29, two Dragon combat vehicles and nine Gun Trucks.
“Sadly, a gallant senior officer Brigadier General Dzarma Zirkusu and three soldiers paid the supreme sacrifice in a very rare display of gallantry as they provided reinforcement in a counteroffensive against the terrorists, and successfully defended the location,” the statement said.
It was learnt that apart from attacking the Super Camp in Askira, the ISWAP fighters also destroyed telecommunication masts and other facilities, forcing residents to flee.
Before the attack yesterday, it was learnt that some civilians had sighted the ISWAP fighters at about 7am in a long convoy of gun trucks along the Ngulde axis, heading towards Askira.
Sources said the locals had reported the movement to nearby officials but unfortunately, the deadly group reached Askira town at about 9am and unleashed violence on troops and civilians.
“They went to Askira in 16 gun trucks,” the source said.
Daily Trust learnt that additional troops from Damboa, who also went after the ISWAP, were trapped in another ambush. There was no clear information on casualties at the time of filing this report last night.
An intelligence source said the terrorists were aware of the difficult scenario they might encounter in the first attack on Askira and therefore they coordinated the two ambushes on the troops that were on reinforcement from Chibok and Damboa ahead of time.
“They came to Askira well prepared and stationed ambush teams along the routes but despite their preparation, it was still a bad one for them as they have again lost their men,” he said.
It was learnt that thousands of civilians had fled to nearby towns of Uba and Chibok.
Residents who went back around 6pm met many houses torched by the insurgents.
Apart from the carnage in Askira, the terrorists reportedly burnt classrooms in a primary school located in Chanchan Dana, a village in the local government.
It was also gathered that the insurgents had attacked Anguwan Sarki village for about three hours where they burnt shops and vehicles including a truck belonging to Borno State Government.
Another group of terrorists attacked Mulai village, close to Maiduguri and rustled some cattle.
Yet a different gang from the ISWAP mobilised and headed to Buni Yadi in Yobe State where they destroyed a communication mast and a health centre.
However, some of them who went to Ngamdu in Kaga Local Government of Borno, along Maiduguri-Damaturu Road, were dealt with as many of them were killed and their vehicles destroyed, a military source and two civilians told our reporter.
‘Terrorists on reprisal’
Credible sources said Saturday’s multiple attacks by the terrorists were a reprisal.
“They were mad because of what befell them on Friday,” the source said.
“Dozens of the ISWAP commanders were killed and many of them injured on Friday through air reconnaissance when they were holding a meeting with their new leader, Sani Shuwaram.
“They were holding a meeting in an enclave in northern Borno when they were raided by the air power at Sabon Tumbun and Jibularam in Marte Local Government Area in Borno State,” the source said.
ISWAP tax farmers, mount checkpoints on highway
Daily Trust on Sunday gathered that the ISWAP fighters, who hitherto had a firm root in northern Borno, have recently up their game in the southern part of the state.
They have in the last few months been collecting “tolls” from drivers and “taxes” from farmers.
They have also mounted checkpoints on the highway that links Damboa and Biu.
“They have three checkpoints along Damboa-Biu Highway for some time,” a commuter said.
“They normally stop commuters and search the car if there are any security personnel or humanitarian workers in the vehicles because they don’t treat them lightly,” he said.
Another passenger, Ismail, said the terrorists do send drivers plying the road on errands to buy some commodities for them from Biu while coming back.
“They have a checkpoint at Sabon Gari, Yemantan area, Ruga and smaller ones along the road. They are in strategic places where they can see vehicles from far away.
“They dress like soldiers and whenever the drivers see them, they would stop,” he said.
A teacher in Damboa narrated his ordeal when he had an encounter with the ISWAP group on his way to Biu recently.
“They were so free and doing things as if it were normal,” he said.
“Our driver told us not to panic when he saw them approaching us. I was half dead but I summoned courage and the ISWAP fighter asked who am I? I told him that I am a petty trader and he asked me to buy detergents, bread and sleepers for him. He gave our driver N7,200 and asked him to do something for him,” he said.
‘Collect Zakat from farmers’
A top state government official told our Correspondent that many farmers are living under the control of ISWAP fighters in the Damboa axis.
“The terrorists allow the locals to farm and they collect what they called zakat (an annual alms tax or poor rate) from every farmer after they harvest their produce,” he said.
The source claimed that the farmers were not averse to the arrangement.
“When Boko Haram under Shekau infested these areas, they don’t even allow people to go to their farms; so, when ISWAP somehow took over, they said people can go to their farms but must pay tax and also pay zakat,” he said.
A farmer, who gave his name as Musa Mrusha, told our correspondent that many of the locals said they don’t want authorities to know.
“In the past, many Boko Haram fighters have killed many farmers during harvest time like this. But have you heard of such this year?
“Early last month they came and told me while I was at the farm that when it is time to harvest, they have their portions which I agreed and fulfil the promised,” Musa said.
It’s a dangerous trend
A security expert, Salihu Bakhari who had worked in the North East when he was in the service, said a new trend had emerged.
“The ISWAP fighters are a terrible people…They have a way of living ‘peacefully’ with the locals without harming them except for those leaking information to the authorities,” he said.
“This is what is happening in northern Borno where people are farming and fishing while terrorists are milking them through tax collection. Also, the ISWAP fighters only attack security operatives. It is very rare to see them tackling civilians.
“This is what they are trying to extend to southern Borno and parts of central parts of the state and is very dangerous. It is part of their territorial conquests and government must stop it,” he said.