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Nigeria deploys army to northeast to fight rebels

Wednesday - 5/15/2013, 4:30pm  ET

JON GAMBRELL
Associated Press

LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) -- Nigeria rumbled to a war footing Wednesday as soldiers and equipment moved into its northeastern states as part of an emergency military campaign against Islamic extremists waging a bloody insurgency.

In the last two days, Associated Press journalists and witnesses have seen armored tanks and soldiers moving through major roads and cities in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states. Those states, crossing an arid region of some 155,000 square kilometers (60,000 square miles), are now under a state of emergency declared by President Goodluck Jonathan Tuesday night. The presidential order allows the military to arrest anyone at will and raid any building suspected of housing extremists.

Residents of the northeastern region greeted the new military campaign with faded hope and suspicion. Some prayed for an end of a violent guerrilla campaign that's killed more than 1,600 people since 2010, according to an AP count.

"Let's hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel; we have had enough killings and attacks and this created a tense situation in the land," said Amuga Keftin, who teaches at the Modibbo Adama University of Technology in Yola, the state capital of Adamawa state.

Others worried that regular life would halt entirely in the region, as people stay home out of fear of being targeted by security forces already accused of harassing, detaining and even killing civilians.

"We are waiting to see the arrival of the soldiers and it's our hope that unprovoked attacks, arrests and (abuses will) not be witnessed," Adamawa state resident Rabecca Musa said.

It was unclear the exact strength of the incoming military presence. A statement issued Wednesday by Brig. Gen. Chris Olukolade, a military spokesman, promised a "massive deployment of men and resources." However, Olukolade did not provide specifics and did not return calls for comment.

"The operational (planners) have also briefed participating troops appropriately on arrests, cordon and search -- especially directed at apprehending those who have been violating sovereignty of Nigeria through terrorist training for insurgency and related activities," said Olukolade's statement.

In Maiduguri, the spiritual home of the Islamic extremist network known as Boko Haram, state officials said soldiers had been airlifted into the city. An AP journalist saw convoys of military vehicles on Monday night heading north into the rural expanse that borders Niger and Chad.

Nigeria's military also has jet fighters and attack helicopters, but it was not clear if those would be used in the assault.

Under the president's directive, soldiers have ultimate control over security matters in the three states, though his order allows civilian governments to remain in place. Such declarations are rare in Nigeria, a nation that abandoned a revolving door of coups and military rulers for democracy in 1999. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo placed two states under emergency rule during his tenure, throwing out elected leaders and installing caretaker governments.

This is Jonathan's second declaration of a state of emergency. In late December 2011, he declared emergencies in parts of four states, including Borno and Yobe. However, that declaration and an increased security presence failed to end the violence that is plaguing the nation.

The president's speech Tuesday offered the starkest vision of the ongoing violence, often downplayed by security forces and government officials due to political considerations. Jonathan described the attacks as a "rebellion," at one point describing how fighters had destroyed government buildings and "had taken women and children as hostages." He even acknowledged for the first time that Nigerian forces had lost control of some villages and towns in the northeast, something analysts and residents have warned has happened.

Nigeria's military even has said Islamic fighters now use anti-aircraft guns mounted on trucks to fight the nation's soldiers, likely outgunning the country's already overstretched security forces.

While the military prepares for its campaign, human rights activists remain concerned about the possibility of soldiers indiscriminately arresting and killing civilians. A recent military operation in a fishing village in Borno state along the shores of Lake Chad saw at least 187 people killed amid allegations that soldiers were responsible. While the military has denied repeatedly that it attacks and kills civilians, the country's armed forces have a history of committing such assaults.

"The path towards public safety cannot be an expansion of violations of the rights of Nigerians," Jibrin Ibrahim, the director of the Center for Democracy and Development, said in a statement. "We believe that the human rights of citizens should not be secondary to the provision of security."

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