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MAIDUGURI (Reuters) - A raid on an army base in northeast Nigeria and massacres of civilians in nearby villages at the weekend have left Boko Haram free to move unopposed in a strategic garrison town, witnesses and security sources said.
A Red Cross official who fled the town of Damboa said 50 people were killed in the attacks on the town and six surrounding villages. The violence also drove out 15,000 civilians, the highest number recorded in such a short time.
The insurgents have yet to establish any permanent presence in Damboa and nearby villages, but a power vacuum existing since Nigerian troops stationed there were pushed out two weeks ago enables them to move as they please.
Moving into the area could represent Boko Haram's biggest strategic success since a military offensive dislodged it from several cities and towns in Borno state last year.
Damboa lies on a major highway linking the northern and southern districts of Borno, which borders Cameroon, Chad and Niger. Other areas where the rebels roam freely are more remote.
"Boko Haram have actually taken over our communities," said Andrew Tada, a resident of Attagara village, one of those that emptied out after the weekend attack. "Boko Haram have sacked them and nobody dares go back."
He said that residents had fled to the mountains during the attack. When they returned, the militants had gone but the town was deserted. Boko Haram fighters then set up road blocks.
Boko Haram, which is fighting to carve out an Islamic state in Nigeria, has ceaselessly targeted civilians this year.
A soldier posted on the main road leading out of Damboa said a military offensive was underway to clear the Islamists out, but there had been no security forces in the area for two weeks.
The five-year-old insurgency, which has killed thousands, has been in the international spotlight since Boko Haram fighters kidnapped more than 200 girls from a school in the northeastern village of Chibok in April.
Campaigners in Nigeria and abroad have heaped pressure on President Goodluck Jonathan to rescue the girls and do more to protect civilians in the remote northeast.
On Tuesday, 184 parents of abducted girls and 57 other girls who escaped the rebels met Jonathan in the presidential villa, his first meeting with them since the kidnapping. They looked sad and distraught both before and after the meeting.
"Our commitment is not just to get the girls out, it is also to rout Boko Haram completely from Nigeria. But we are very mindful of the safety of the girls," Jonathan told them, according to a statement after the meeting.
"We want to return them all alive to their parents. If they are killed in any rescue effort, then we have achieved nothing."
Ayuba Alamison, a parent at the meeting who has two daughters with the rebels, said Jonathan had promised they would be brought home soon.
Adamu Usman, Red Cross member from Damboa who fled on Sunday with his family, said there was no Boko Haram presence there now but they could attack with impunity. He denied reports that Boko Haram had hoisted black, al-Qaeda style flags in the town.
"When they came to kill people, there were no soldiers to stop them. People can't come back," he told Reuters.
Defence spokesman Major-General Chris Olukolade also denied that Boko Haram had taken over Damboa and the surrounding areas on Monday, adding that "our patrols are active and they are stepping up their activities to reverse any insecurity there."
But residents of Damboa fear a takeover is possible soon.
"If they can attack the military the way they did and then come after us, it means they are on the ground in the town and nowhere is safe," said Mohammadu Birma, who fled on Friday.
Security sources say Boko Haram are effectively pursuing a scorched earth policy, driving out authorities and anyone else who does not support their effort to create a de facto Islamic state.
Additional reporting by Tim Cocks in Lagos, Felix Onuah in Abuja and Isaac Abrak in Kaduna; Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Tom Heneghan