Maiduguri: Nigerian troops on Sunday fought pitched battles with Boko Haram in the restive northeastern city of Maiduguri, a day after President Goodluck Jonathan visited and again promised an end to the insurgency.
Soldiers backed by heavy weaponry and fighter jets deployed after a dawn raid on the nearby village of Jintilo that prompted the authorities to put the entire city on lock-down.
Fears have been growing about a possible strike on Maiduguri since Islamist militants began seizing towns and villages in three northeast states about six months ago.
On January 3, they captured the fishing hub of Baga, in the far north of Borno State, which security analysts said put them in a better position to strike south to hit the state capital.
Hundreds of people, if not more, are feared dead in the massive attack, which also forced tens of thousands of people to flee, many of them to the town of Monguno 65 kilometres (40 miles) south of Baga.
Others fled to Maiduguri, where many of the hundreds of thousands of displaced have sought sanctuary from the relentless wave of attacks and abductions.
Last week, hundreds more fled four villages about 40 kilometres south of Baga after a warning from the militants, indicating a clear plan to push south.Nigeria`s military announced news of the raid on its Twitter account, saying: "Troops are repelling a simultaneous attack on Monguno and Maiduguri by terrorists."
Troops were on the ground with air support, while a curfew had been imposed on the embattled city, which has been repeatedly attacked since 2009, it added.
Locals said the extremists first attacked Jintilo, which is five kilometres from Maiduguri, at about 5:00 am (0400 GMT).
But they met stiff resistance from troops.
"Fighting is still going on since 5:00 am at Jintilo between Boko Haram and soldiers. We have all evacuated our homes," said Mustapha Zaraye, a resident of a housing estate near the scene.
"More soldiers are deploying to Jintilo," he added.
Residents on Maiduguri`s southern outskirts meanwhile moved out of their homes and poured into the city as fighting raged.
"It is flying bullets everywhere. All we hear are sounds of guns and explosions," said Buba Kyari, a resident of Moronti neighbourhood, near Jintilo.
"A rocket-propelled grenade hit and killed a person from my neighbourhood who was fleeing into the city."A military jet was seen overhead and bombed Boko Haram positions, a member of a civilian vigilante group fighting alongside the troops said.
"The attackers have been subdued and are in disarray," the vigilante claimed, asking to remain anonymous for security reasons, but there was no independent verification.
Jonathan was in Maiduguri as part of his re-election campaign on Saturday and again vowed to defeat the militants, whose territorial gains in the northeast have raised wider fears for regional security.
"What I can assure you is that if re-elected as president, the problem of insecurity will be addressed," he told supporters of his Peoples Democratic Party.
But the head of state has made repeated such assurances in the past, and despite massive defence spending, Nigeria`s military has seemingly been unable to prevent attacks and protect lives and property.
On the eve of Jonathan`s visit, militants killed 15 people in the nearby village of Kambari.
Brutal raids, massacres, suicide bomb attacks and kidnappings are estimated to have claimed more than 13,000 lives and driven some 1.5 million people from their homes.
Nigeria`s military has been criticised for failing to crush the rebellion but soldiers complain they lack the arms and ammunition to fight the better-equipped militants.
Nigeria`s neighbours Cameroon, Chad and Niger this week launched a joint bid to fight the militants and halt their advance, hoping to create a new regional force to halt the Islamists` advance.