MAIDUGURI, Nigeria — Nigerian officials are trying to reassure citizens panicked about a spreading Islamic insurgency in the northeast even as fleeing residents report the extremists are urging people to join their fight and take their children out of school.
The Nigerian Defense Ministry acknowledged "challenges in the counter-terrorism efforts" that has filled citizens and even foreign allies with apprehension, but it repeated promises that "everything will be done to ... defeat the rampaging terrorists."
The statement did not admit that Boko Haram militants this past week seized Bama, the second largest city in Borno state, and now threaten the state capital, Maiduguri. Boko Haram has hoisted its black and white flag over several other Nigerian towns in recent weeks.
Nor did the army statement mention that witnesses report hundreds of Nigerian soldiers fled the fighting across the border into Cameroon in the past two weeks.
Borno Gov. Kashim Shettima said he cut short a visit abroad because of rumored fears of an attack on the Borno state capital of Maiduguri: "I cut short my official trip and returned home so we can be together as we have always been in trying to overcome the threat before us," he said in a message broadcast Friday.
Shettima extended sympathy to those who have lost loved ones in "serial massacres" in recent weeks.
He said he was very aware of additional hardships caused by the Islamic insurgency: tens of thousands of farmers driven from their land, many children, including new orphans, out of school and the need for additional medical services. He said his government has bought thousands of bags of food for free distribution, is starting scholarships for all children orphaned by the insurgency, and has instructed the state health ministry to introduce mobile clinics to attend to victims of the emergency.
Shettima urged Nigeria's federal government to redouble its efforts to contain the insurgency.
More than 26,000 people have fled Bama, a city of 200,000, joining some 1.5 million Nigerians forced from their homes by the fighting since a state of emergency was declared in the northeast in May 2013, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Boko Haram has in recent weeks seized more towns and now controls a large swath of Nigeria's extreme northeast, in a new strategy to form an "Islamic caliphate," mimicking Iraq's Islamic State group.
Nigeria's military appears incapable of responding to the aggressive land grabs by the insurgents who attracted international attention with their April kidnapping of more than 300 schoolgirls, of whom more than 200 remain captive.
A refugee from the seized town of Bara, in Yobe state, told The Associated Press that Boko Haram fighters are forcing people to listen to their preaching, which includes rants against corruption in the government and orders to keep their children away from Western education. Boko Haram means "Western education is sinful" in the local Hausa language and the militants also are opposed to Western medicine. The extremists have killed health workers on polio vaccination campaigns.
"In Bara now there is no single police, soldier, civil defence, state security service personnel," said truck driver Musa Abdullahi, 60. "They have all run away for fear of being killed, even the civil servants are not spared from attack, if you are a government worker they kill you." He fled with his wife and seven children to Ngaldi town.
The United States and the United Nations this week expressed deep concern about Nigeria's deteriorating security situation, with U.S. Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield warning Nigerian officials that "The reputation of Nigeria's military is at stake. But, more importantly, Nigeria's and its children's future is in jeopardy."
In an apparent rebuke to the Nigerian government and the military's denials of the perilous situation, she said it was "past time for denial and pride."
Faul reported from Johannesburg. Associated Press writer Adamu Adamu contributed to this report from Damaturu, Nigeria.