By Samaila Yila
The icirnigeria.org can authoritatively report that 11 of the soldiers declared missing by the Nigerian Army may have been killed by Boko Haram insurgents.
The soldiers were declared missing after troops of 156 Task Force Battalion coming from a clearance operation at Guro Gongon on July 22, were ambushed by Boko Haram.
The army had confirmed the attack and said some soldiers were missing but did not say how many.
Sources told icirnigeria.org that the dead bodies of 11 of the missing soldiers had been recovered around the scene of the ambush by an army rescue team.
This website was informed by military sources close to the operation that 16 soldiers and three officers were unaccounted for, including the commanding officer referred to as Lieutenant Colonel Ibrahim.
The army sent in a search and rescue team of more than 50 soldiers comprising its Special Forces and others to rescue the missing soldiers. The next day, July 23, the army announced that five soldiers, including the commanding officer, had been found.
However, sources close to the operation, including members of the search and rescue party, told our reporter that some of the missing soldiers found their way to the battalion headquarters at Maulud with little help from the battalion reinforcement team. This team, we were informed, did not reach the scene of the ambush, but stayed at a distance from where they saw some of the fleeing and wounded soldiers. It was at that point that the team helped their wounded colleagues and drove them to their location.
We had reported that the soldiers successfully conducted their patrol and were on their way back when one of their vehicles got stuck in mud and in the process of removing the vehicle, the insurgents struck.
According to a member of the rescue team, who did not want to be named, the soldiers who survived said the vehicle that got stuck in mud was a Hilux mounted with Anti-Aircraft gun they recovered from the insurgents at Guro Gongon.
“They tied the Hilux to one of their vehicles and wanted to tow it to their location. When the vehicle got stuck, some of the soldiers tried to push it from the back while the driver of the vehicle the truck was tied to tried to see if he could drag it with his vehicle,” the soldier said.
The soldier said the insurgents must have known that the soldiers would encounter trouble passing through Markas, where the attack happened, and decided to ambush them there. With the soldiers busy with the stuck vehicle, a rocket propelled grenade, RPG, hit one of their vehicles, killing four soldiers near it.
Before they could get themselves together, the insurgents had started shooting. Some of the soldiers had kept their riffles in a vehicle while they attempted to retrieve the stuck vehicle and could not reach for their rifles quick enough. Moreover, their extra ammunitions were in a box inside a vehicle, which they also had no time to reach.
There were conflicting reports about the conduct of soldiers, with some saying they defied their commanding officer’s orders that no soldier should run away but stay and fight. Some of the survivors claimed that they fought for three hours and only fled when they ran out of ammunitions but other soldiers said that was not true.
“Some soldiers at the battalion headquarters said they heard sound of gunshots but only for about one hour and it was at that point that reinforcement was sent. From my experience, if you engage Boko Haram for three straight hours, they will withdraw because of fear of reinforcement. I think what might have happened was that immediately they saw that they were ambushed, some of them took to their heels and the way we recovered the corpses gave credence to this,” the soldier explained.
Our reporter was informed that the soldiers never expected to come under such attack, as they had on several occasions in the past gone on clearance operations and met little confrontation from the insurgents. Usually, the insurgents would flee at the sight of soldiers, just as they did on that day at Guro Gongon.
Narrating what they saw, the soldier, who said the search team got to Markas a day after the incident, said they recovered 11 dead bodies of soldiers, 10 of which were badly burnt.
“Under a baobab tree some distance away from the scene of the incident, we recovered five corpses. The officer’s corpse, who another officer with us identified as Abdullahi, was seen more than a kilometre from the scene. His corpse was the only one not burnt. We saw another one not far from the bombed vehicle,” he said, adding that they noticed that the insurgents must have stripped the soldiers of their uniforms and boots and made away with them.
They also made away with the soldiers’ weapons and ammunition, including those the soldiers recovered earlier at Guro Gongon.
He pointed out that each corpse had two bullet holes in the head, a style adopted by the insurgents to ensure that their victims did not survive.
According to the soldier, only seven corpses were retrieved because aside the fact that there was not enough space in the vehicle to convey them all, four had decomposed.
“Ten soldiers transported the corpses and said they would come back for the remaining four but till we left they did not come back,” he said.
Describing the terrain, another soldier said he had not seen anything like it, including the dreaded Sambisa Forest.
“You know, Sambisa is huge but there is a large part of it that is not bushy. But when we got to Markas, we were shocked that such a place existed. The place is a massive swathe of land with thick bush all through. To tell you the truth, even we were scared. The bush is so thick that you could not see or tell if someone was hiding close by. It is a massive area and one can live there for years without being discovered,” the soldier said.
“A Fulani man living nearby and who knew about the attack told us Boko Haram members populated the place only two years ago. He said from next month, when rain becomes heavy, there is no way in and out of the place till dry season.”
The Nigerian military has greatly degraded Boko Haram and reclaimed virtually all territories from the group but it is obvious that Markas may harbour a substantial number of the insurgents.
“Our vehicles got stuck on many occasions, disrupting our movement. Even when we saw the insurgents and they shot at us from a distance, we could not go after them because it would be suicidal do so on that road. We had to spend about four days there because the towing truck we went with also got stuck and after we managed to remove it, it got spoilt. A mechanic had to be escorted from Maiduguri to come and fix it.
“During those nights, nobody could sleep, as we kept hearing gunshots,” he narrated.
Our reporter was informed that a jet was sent but did nothing.
“The jet came the first day we went and also the following day. On that second day, it communicated with the officer that led us, Captain Nura, that it had seen the insurgents and was going to shell them but nothing happened and after some minutes of hovering above, it left and did not come back,” another soldier said.
Sani Usman, a colonel and Acting Director, Army Public Relations, denied that any dead body was recovered, adding that a missing in action person cannot be declared until after a year.
“You cannot confirm any declared missing in action personnel (dead) until after a years, even at that there must be a board that has recommended so, or when the dead body is seen and confirmed to be that of the missing personnel. so far, there is none yet,” he said in text message.