Lagos: Nigeria on Monday braced for fresh Boko Haram attacks ahead of this month`s elections, with the key city of Maiduguri in the firing line and forces from Chad and Cameroon joining the regional fight.
A weekend of violence saw the Borno state capital, Maiduguri, hit for the second Sunday in a row, but Nigerian Army soldiers, helped by civilian vigilantes, managed to keep the militants at bay.
The border town of Gamboru, on Borno`s eastern fringe, meanwhile was pounded by artillery fire and from the air by Chadian jets, as troops massed in Cameroon for a possible ground offensive.
The increase in both militant and military activity reflects growing fears over the Islamists` threat to regional security and crucial elections scheduled for February 14.
Security analysts believe Maiduguri, the birthplace of Boko Haram, will likely be hit again before polling day, given its symbolism for the group and because it would undermine the vote, which it sees as "un-Islamic".
"The insurgents had long denounced elections as a pagan practice incompatible with the Islamic state and they had vowed they would never allow democracy to thrive in the region," said Nnamdi Obasi, from the International Crisis Group.
"So, it was predictable they would step up attacks to pre-empt the coming elections, particularly in Maiduguri, and we may not have seen the end yet," he told AFP.Boko Haram was founded in 2002 in Maiduguri, which is currently home to hundreds of thousands of people displaced by violence elsewhere in Nigeria`s far northeast in the last six years.
The militants are in control of most of the state and have effectively surrounded the city, which is seen as one of the few places left in Borno where voting could feasibly still take place.
Turn-out could be affected if large numbers desert the city, which with other areas in the northeast is a main opposition stronghold.
Capturing Maiduguri would not only be a morale-booster for the rebels but also likely sink President Goodluck Jonathan`s re-election bid once and for all, said Obasi.
Chad`s offensive comes after the African Union and United Nations last week backed a new 7,500-strong, five-nation force to tackle Boko Haram.
Nigeria`s military maintains that N`Djamena`s involvement is part of the existing agreement with Chad and Niger for their troops to assist in the counter-insurgency.
Chad and Niger had withdrawn their troops from the multi-national base at Baga, in northern Borno, last year, leaving only Nigerian soldiers to defend the town when it was attacked on January 3.
That led some to assume the existing force was dead in the water but the devastating strike on Baga, in which hundreds or more were feared killed, appears to have jolted it into action.
Chadian jets last week bombed the Boko Haram-controlled town of Malam Fatori, near the border with Niger.Jonathan, who has been criticised for failing to end the violence, could be hoping for a political bounce from any military successes in the tight election campaign, even at this late stage.
But Mark Schroeder, from security and political analysts Stratfor, believes that allowing foreign forces to operate on Nigerian soil would be counter-productive to him and the country.
"This is essentially absolving Nigeria of its long-standing geopolitical strength as the region`s hegemon able to assist internal and pan-West African security stability," he said.
Schroeder, the group`s vice-president for Africa analysis, also considered Nigerian Army operations no more than "forays", adding that a sustained effort was needed to claw back territory.
Boko Haram`s attacks on Maiduguri may be designed to draw the Nigerian Army to defend the city, allowing the group to mount strikes elsewhere in the northeast and defend eastern positions.
Ryan Cummings, chief Africa analyst at risk consultants Red24, suggested the last two strikes may have been preliminary tests of the city`s defences.
"Boko Haram is currently in its most advantageous tactical position to launch a large-scale offensive on Maiduguri, with the intent of actually capturing the city," he said.
"This could be the preamble to such a push. I still remain sceptical as to whether Boko Haram has the resources to either capture or hold a city the size of Maiduguri.
"But the sect may well be planning to give it a go."