Nigeria election boss rules out further poll delay as army claims gains

Nigeria`s elections chief Wednesday ruled out any further postponement to the country`s upcoming presidential and parliamentary polls, despite the country`s Boko Haram insurgents vowing to stymie the ballot.

Abuja: Nigeria`s elections chief Wednesday ruled out any further postponement to the country`s upcoming presidential and parliamentary polls, despite the country`s Boko Haram insurgents vowing to stymie the ballot.

Any further delay to the vote, which was postponed by six weeks to March 28 over Boko Haram`s bloody insurgency in the northeast, would be "unconstitutional" electoral commission chairman Attahiru Jega told the Senate.

His remarks came as the military claimed to have killed more than 300 Boko Haram militants in a counter-offensive and as forces from Chad pushed further into rebel-held areas.

Boko Haram`s bloody six-year campaign to establish a hardline Islamic caliphate in northeast Nigeria, near the borders with Cameroon, Chad and Niger, has left some 13,000 people dead since 2009.

The Nigerian army claimed Wednesday it had inflicted "massive" casualties on the rebels in an operation to retake the garrison town of Monguno in Borno state and 10 other communities from the insurgents.

There was no independent verification of the claims, which follow similar assertions about high numbers of militant deaths issued by Niger, Chad and Cameroon, which have joined Africa`s most populous nation in a fightback against the group.

Civilian vigilantes in Monguno, which Boko Haram had been expected to use as a launchpad for a strike on the state capital Maiduguri, confirmed the recapture but said only that there were heavy casualties.Regional forces suffered a set-back Wednesday, however, with officials and humanitarian sources saying at least 36 mourners at a funeral were killed and 27 wounded in an air strike by an unidentified plane on Nigeria`s border with Niger.

The bombs struck near the mosque in Abadam, half of which is in Niger and the other half in Nigeria. Only the Niger side of the village was hit.

Troops from Niger and Chad are currently mobilised along the border to guard against incursions by Boko Haram but both countries` militaries denied being responsible.

Nigerian Air Force spokesman Air Commodore Dele Alonge too claimed no knowledge of the bombing, adding: "There has not been any report from our people of such an incident."The ongoing operations against Boko Haram were cited by Nigeria`s national security advisor Sambo Dasuki and military top brass as a reason to delay the country`s elections, which had been scheduled for February 14. 

Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau vowed in a new video posted Tuesday on Twitter: "This election will not be held even if we are dead."

Shekau also claimed responsibility for a large-scale attack on the northeastern city of Gombe last Saturday where leaflets were dropped warning people not to vote.

Taking questions in the upper chamber of parliament on Wednesday, Jega, who heads the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), was adamant there would be no further change to the timetable.

"I don`t see how anyone can contemplate any extension beyond these six weeks because there is no constitutional grounds on which you can do that," he said.

Jega announced the postponement of the vote on February 7 after being told that soldiers would not be available to provide security on polling day.

The decision was criticised, with many viewing the six-week delay to stabilise the northeast as unrealistic, especially with violence still raging.

Critics have accused the ruling party of orchestrating the delay to give it more time to revive President Goodluck Jonathan`s re-election campaign.The recapture by the Nigerian army of Monguno, and its claims to have destroyed a vast cache of rebel arms, equipment and ammunition, adds to its list of reported military victories in recent weeks.

The Chadian military, which recently routed the insurgents from the Nigerian town of Gamboru on the border with Cameroon, said Tuesday evening they had pushed further into Borno.

Two Chadian soldiers and several Boko Haram fighters were killed Tuesday in violent clashes around Dikwa, some 50 kilometres (31 miles) southwest of Gamboru, Chadian military sources said.

A militant camp, which is near the group`s stronghold in the Sambisa Forest, was overrun, the sources added.

The presence of Chadian forces so far inside Nigerian territory is a first and may indicate a strategy to push on further into rebel-controlled areas to assist Nigeria`s military, who have failed to end the violence.

The "friendly fire" incident on the border with Niger risks however losing the coalition vital support from the local population and creating further tensions in the fragile alliance.

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