Kano: Hundreds of people from four villages near the devastated Nigerian town of Baga have been forced to flee after a warning from Boko Haram militants, witnesses and community leaders said Tuesday.
News of the exodus from Kekenu, Budur, Yoyo and Mile 90 villages came as Niger hosted a meeting on how to fight the rebels as concern mounted at the threat to regional security.
Boko Haram fighters attacked Baga on January 3, looting and burning down homes and businesses in the town and at least 16 surrounding villages on the shores of Lake Chad.
Hundreds of people, if not more, are feared to have been killed, although there is no official confirmation of the toll as the town is still in rebel hands, residents said.
Security analysts said the attack, in which a regional military base was captured, potentially puts the group in a strong strategic position to strike southwards and launch cross-border attacks.
Lake Chad forms the border between Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon and tens of thousands of people have streamed across the frontiers seeking sanctuary from the relentless violence.Abubakar Gamandi, head of the Borno State fishermen`s union, said residents from the affected villages told him Boko Haram fighters had visited "and asked people to leave -- or else".
One women who fled Baga to the Borno State capital, Maiduguri, on Monday confirmed that she joined the crowds fleeing the four villages.
"When we came to Mile 90, we found it almost empty with some remaining residents staying behind to pick up personal belongings," said Ma`agana Butari.
"We also found Budur, Kekenu and Yoyo deserted and we caught up with some of the residents moving towards Monguno," the 32-year-old mother of five said by telephone from Maiduguri.
The villages lie some 40 kilometres (25 miles) south of Baga and although there was no confirmation that Boko Haram had moved in, it will likely raise fears that the group plans to push south.
Boko Haram, which is fighting for a hardline Islamic state in northeast Nigeria was founded in Maiduguri in 2002 but was driven out in 2013 after a state of emergency was declared.
The city has in recent weeks been hit by a wave of suicide bombings.In Niger`s capital, Niamey, the country`s foreign minister, Mohamed Bazoum, said the rise in strength of Boko Haram "reflects our slowness and our inability to put up a robust response".
Chadian troops deployed last weekend to help Cameroon repel Boko Haram attacks in its far north region in a sign of the growing recognition of the wider threat posed by the group.
Ghana`s President, John Dramani Mahama, has also raised the possibility of a larger regional force, possibly under the auspices of the African Union, to prevent the spread of violence.
Both Butari and another woman, Aisa Aribe, who arrived in Maiduguri from Baga on Monday, said Boko Haram were still in control of the town and the streets were strewn with the dead.
"Dead bodies are all over the town and surrounding villages. They are decomposing and there is no one to bury them," said Aribe.
The pair said they were among hundreds of women held by the group, initially in a girls` boarding school and at the home of a local senator.
"They later separated the young women and beautiful ones and took them to a different location," said Butari.
"They told the rest of us that we had the choice to either stay or leave and join `infidels` in Monguno (65 kilometres away where many Baga residents fled) and Maiduguri.
"They derisively told us we better stay with them because we have nowhere to go since they killed all our husbands."