Newspaper article International New York Times

Mercenaries Battle Rebels in Nigeria

Newspaper article International New York Times

Mercenaries Battle Rebels in Nigeria

Article excerpt

Hundreds of South African mercenaries, equipped with sophisticated weaponry, are fighting to retake towns and villages captured by the Islamist group.

Hundreds of South African mercenaries and hired fighters of other nationalities are playing a decisive role in Nigeria's military campaign against Boko Haram, operating attack helicopters and armored personnel carriers and fighting to retake towns and villages captured by the Islamist militant group, according to senior officials in the region.

The Nigerian government has not acknowledged the presence of the mercenaries, but a senior government official in northern Nigeria said the South Africans -- camped out in a remote portion of the airport in Maiduguri, the city at the heart of Boko Haram's uprising -- conduct most of their operations at night because "they really don't want to let people know what is going on."

He said the mercenaries' role was crucial, part of a new offensive against Boko Haram after a nearly six-year insurrection. The Nigerian military, under pressure because of a presidential election to be held this month, has recently claimed a string of successes against Boko Haram, boasting about the recapture of a number of towns.

The mercenaries "are in the vanguard in the liberation of some of the communities," the official said.

Another official, a senior Western diplomat, agreed that the South Africans were playing "a major operational role," particularly at night. Equipped with night vision, the mercenaries "are whacking them in the evening hours. The next morning the Nigerian Army rolls in and claims success," the diplomat said.

The mercenaries "are doing the heavy lifting," said the diplomat, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter. "They own the night."

A third diplomat said he believed the mercenary force comprised fighters from other nationalities as well.

The Nigerians' assertions of success follow months in which portions of the country's territory were lost to Boko Haram, an Islamist militant group that has stormed into villages, killing civilians at random, abducting women and girls at will, and forcing tens of thousands of residents to flee across the country's northeast. …

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