An African Union summit Friday endorsed creation of a 7,500-member African force to fight the Nigerian extremist group Boko Haram, which has threatened to spread its deadly insurgency.
Nigeria insists it doesn’t need an outside force to combat the group, which wants to set up an Islamic State-style caliphate. However, Nigeria’s often-outgunned military has lost control of a vast slice of the country’s northeast to Boko Haram over the last year.
Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma of South Africa, chairwoman of the AU’s executive commission, told African leaders at the opening of their summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, that a robust approach was crucial following recent attacks on Nigeria’s neighbor, Cameroon, by Boko Haram fighters.
“Terrorism, in particular the brutality of Boko Haram against our people, (is) a threat to our collective safety, security and development,” Dlamini said. “This has now spread to the region beyond Nigeria and requires a collective, effective and decisive response.”
Boko Haram has killed thousands of civilians in Nigeria and raised its black flag over dozens of villages, effectively surrounding Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state and a major regional trade center.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, whose government has agreed to participate in the force despite its reluctance, was not present at the AU summit. He was in Nigeria busy campaigning with general elections scheduled Feb. 14. On Thursday, he faced protests from stone-throwing youths when he visited the eastern town of Yola, according to Nigerian media.
Boko Haram attacked Maiduguri on Sunday and was driven back by Nigerian forces. However, the militia’s fighters took control of Monguno, 80 miles to the north, seizing a military base and ammunition. It launched another attack Thursday on Maiduguri, the Associated Press reported.
Boko Haram’s heavily armed fighters are believed to have benefited from the flood of arms from Libya into northern and western Africa after the 2011 overthrow of the late Moammar Gadhafi.
The regional AU force has to be approved by the United Nations Security Council, with troops from Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, Niger and Benin expected to make up the bulk of the force. Part of its role would be to rescue the unknown number of people abducted by the militia.
Boko Haram routinely kidnaps women and children as sex slaves and boys as fighters, according to witnesses of recent attacks. The group gained global infamy for its abduction last April of 276 schoolgirls in the Nigerian town of Chibok.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. assistant secretary of state for Africa, told journalists the United States would help the AU force. “We are prepared to provide technical support, training and equipment to fight the Boko Haram group,” she said.
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