Maiduguri: Boko Haram fighters on Sunday overran a strategic town in northeastern Nigeria and seized a military base, as Secretary of State John Kerry pledged further US support for the counter-insurgency.
The Islamists captured the town of Monguno in Borno State, which lies about 125 kilometres (80 miles) north of the state capital Maiduguri, which was targeted in a simultaneous dawn raid.
"Monguno has fallen, Monguno has fallen," said a senior military officer, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorised to speak to the media.
"We fought them all night long but they took over the town, including the military barracks there."
Another source, who also requested anonymity, said Nigerian troops were overwhelmed and forced to retreat from Monguno, which has been targeted twice before in September last year and March 2013.
There was no immediate response from the military high command in Abuja when contacted by AFP but militant fighters were forced out of Maiduguri and Konduga, 40 kilometres away, local residents said.
But Monguno`s fall is potentially significant. Not only does it remove the last military base to Maiduguri from the northeast but also gives Boko Haram a free run into the key city.
"On the other hand, it may be more of Boko Haram overrunning the base with the intention of seizing as much weaponry as possible, amid concerns of a possible regional counter-insurgency operation," said Ryan Cummings of risk consultants Red 24.Kerry`s whistlestop visit to Lagos came after fears about election-related violence, with concern about a repeat of post-poll unrest in 2011, which left some 1,000 people dead.
Security has dominated the build-up to the February 14 presidential and parliamentary vote, as Boko Haram has intensified its attacks.
Nigeria is currently scrambling for a solution to the problem of how to allow hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the violence to vote, which has led to calls for a delay.
There have also been sporadic attacks by supporters of President Goodluck Jonathan`s Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the All Progressives Congress (APC) main opposition.
That came despite Jonathan and the APC candidate, former military general, Muhammadu Buhari, signing a non-violence pact in the presence of former UN seceretary general Kofi Annan.
Kerry suggested there was a link between the peaceful conclusion of free, fair and timely elections and further US support for Nigeria against Boko Haram.
"It is absolute critical that this election can be conducted peacefully. The international community is paying very close attention to this election," he said.
It was "imperative that elections happen on time", he added.
On Boko Haram, Kerry said Washington was "prepared to do more" to help Nigeria, which has west Africa`s largest military but has been criticised for failing to protect lives and property.
More than 13,000 people have been killed and more than one million made homeless by the violence since 2009.
The United States has been sharing intelligence with the Nigerians and was involved in the multi-national effort to find 219 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram in April last year.
"Bottom line, we want to do more and that was part of the message to both President Jonathan and General Buhari today," Kerry added.
"We are prepared to do more but our ability to do more will depend to some degree on the full measure of credibility and accountability and transparency and peacefulness of these elections."The renewed violence underscored the extent of the difficulties facing Nigeria as the election approaches and also the increasing threat it poses for the country`s neighbours.
Last week, Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon met to discuss the creation of a new multi-national force while troops from Chad deployed to Cameroon to help repel attacks there.
The group`s leader Abubakar Shekau last week dismissed the initiative, saying: "Kings of Africa, you are late. I challenge you to attack me even now. I`m ready."
Boko Haram, which the United States has proscribed as an international terrorist organisation, has until recently been seen as a largely localised group.
The militants want to create a hardline Islamic state in northeast Nigeria and have been capturing towns and villages for the last six months, declaring some part of a caliphate.
But Kerry warned that action needed to be taken, with so-called Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq trying to extend their reach into parts of north Africa.
"It is obviously a concern that they try more aggressively to try to spread to countries of... other parts of Africa," he said.