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No fewer than 300 Nigerian soldiers fled to Cameroon when Boko Haram insurgents overran Mubi, the second largest city in Borno State from security forces on Wednesday, SUNDAY PUNCH has learnt.
Cameroonian military sources told our correspondent that Nigerian soldiers fled the north-eastern part of Nigeria, where the insurgency launched by the sect was raging, and crossed the Nigeria-Cameroon border.
The sources also said more Nigerian troops might have fled to other border towns in Cameroon after the Mubi attack. However, he added that their number had yet to be ascertained.
SUNDAY PUNCH also learnt that the deserting Nigerian soldiers would be moved away from the border areas to more secure locations, where they would be disarmed, fed and eventually repatriated to Nigeria.
The insurgents had taken over Mararaba Hildi, some few kilometres to Mubi town, on Tuesday, prompting a mass exodus of residents.
Hundreds of soldiers were said to have fled Mubi, which hosts two universities, as insurgents made advances to take over the town on Wednesday.
Speaking to SUNDAY PUNCH on Friday under the condition of anonymity, a senior Cameroonian military officer involved in the provision of welfare materials to the deserters, said, “They (Nigerian soldiers) are mostly around Boucla village in Bourha sub-division.
“So far, we can estimate the number of arrivals to be at about 300. These are the ones who arrived in uniform but we know that there are several others who shed their uniforms for civilian attires.”
The Mubi rout also forced thousands of Nigerian civilians to hit border villages in Cameroon in Benoue and Mayo Louti Divisions, and around Gachiga town.
It was, however, learnt that Cameroonian government was worried about the increasing number of refugees and where to keep them.
The relocation of Nigerian refugees was said to have become necessary as insurgents had previously attacked locations where fleeing Nigerian soldiers were housed.
Protests by indigenes of the border towns over attacks on the camps were said to have forced the Cameroonian government to adopt a policy of moving deserters far away from the border and out of the reach of Boko Haram.
It was further learnt that Cameroon had begun screening of deserters and refugees to prevent infiltration by insurgents.
“This time around, we are conducting a more thorough screening to avoid letting in Boko Haram infiltrators, who are known to inhabit the ranks of the Nigerian military,” an official of the Cameroonian government had told our correspondent in confidence.
Another Cameroonian military officer, who insisted on anonymity, expressed fears over possible infiltration of the country’s system through the refugee camps. He declined to give further details on how the screening was being conducted.
He said, “Taking them in is not something to make noise about. You and I know that we are in a military situation here. This is a war zone with Boko Haram spies crawling all over the place.
“The number we take and where we take them are obviously a military intelligence affair and nobody can give you that information, even if you were to approach the authorities in Yaounde.”
In a related development, SUNDAY PUNCH learnt that Boko Haram had been cultivating and recruiting local fighters among Cameroonian youths.
The sect is operating cells that have been in operation in Cameroon for over three years, recruiting through what a source described as “financial enticement and intimidation.”
Community leaders in the Far North region says thousands of Cameroonian youths had joined the ranks of Boko Haram since the beginning of the year.
“These are mostly young unemployed Cameroonians lured by handsome financial proposals by Boko Haram point men. Other Boko Haram sleeper cells are run by senior Islamists intimidated into doing the bidding of the sect,” one of the traditional leaders in the area, who refused to have his name in print, told our correspondent.
Recruitment of youths by the sect is said to be gaining ground in Cameroon and other neighbouring countries, raising fears that the activities of the insurgents might spread to other parts of West-African sub-region.
The sect had abducted seven members of the Fournier family from France in Cameroon in 2013. They were later released after a huge amount of money was reportedly paid as ransom.
Senior military sources confirmed that some high-ranking Boko Haram members arrested in Cameroon were exchanged for the release of the wife of the Cameroonian Vice-Prime Minister, Ahmadou Ali, and 16 members of his family who were abducted in Kolofata on July 27, as well as 10 Chinese road workers abducted in Waza in April, 2014.
In another related development, top Cameroonian military officials have insisted there is a close cooperation between the Nigerian and Cameroonian armies.
Information on the total number of Boko Haram insurgents detained in Cameroon has been classified as military intelligence.
However, it was learnt that the Cameroonian military had invited their Nigerian counterparts to interrogate Boko Haram suspects, Abakar Ali alias Mustapha Umar, Mahamat Ali and Issiaka Guere, who were arrested on September 23, 2014.
Other suspected members of the sect in detention, who include Cameroonians, will be tried by a special military tribunal in Yaounde, Cameroon, it was learnt.
“We cannot tell you their numbers now because investigations are still going on. When the investigations will be completed, there is the possibility that some of the people being held now on suspicion of being members of Boko Haram might be found to be innocent.
“Others would surely be finally identified as Cameroonians. The decision as to the fate of those found to be foreigners will be taken after the conclusion of the investigations. But I must tell you that besides Cameroonians and Nigerians, there are also members of Boko Haram from other neighbouring countries, which names we cannot cite now”, an official involved in the investigation disclosed.
However, the Cameroonian authorities are said to be reluctant on the repatriation of suspected leaders of the sect in their detention, as they might return to the battlefield should they escape
When our correspondent contacted the Director of Defence Information, Maj.-Gen Chris Olukolade, for his reaction to the issue, he said he would not comment on it.
“I won’t comment on that,” he said.
In August, the Cameroonian Army Spokesman, Lt.-Col. Didier Badjek, had said Nigerian troops had fled to Cameroon after intense fighting with Boko Haram.
But Olukolade, had refuted the desertion claim, saying the soldiers merely strayed into Cameroon.
While Cameroonian authorities said over 700 Nigerian soldiers fled Boko Haram advances into Cameroon, Nigerian authorities had insisted that only 480 went into Cameroonian territory on “technical manoeuver.”
In recent times, Nigerian military have been battling with mutiny and have set up court martials to try soldiers who fled from battle.
On August 27, the military leadership arrested several soldiers, who deserted the army. The arrested soldiers came from different battalions.
A month after, the Defence Headquarters announced that another set of 60 soldiers would be arraigned before a General Court Martial by military authorities in Abuja on October 2 for mutiny. The soldiers allegedly committed mutiny on August 4, 2014 by refusing to join troops in Maiduguri for “an operation.”
Their arraignment which was to take place at the Sani Abacha Barracks in Abuja came as some of the 12 soldiers convicted on September 15, 2014 by the GCM notified the Court of Appeal of their intention to challenge their sentences.
The GCM headed by Brig. Gen. C. Okonkwo had sentenced 12 out of 18 soldiers found guilty of mutiny among other offences to death. Five of them were discharged and acquitted and one sentenced to 28 days’ imprisonment with hard labour and reprimand.