N’DJAMENA, Feb 16 (Reuters) - Chad launched a U.S.-backed counter-terrorism exercise on Monday grouping 1,300 soldiers from 28 African and Western countries, billing it as a warm-up for an offensive against Nigerian Islamist insurgent group Boko Haram.
The “Flintlock” manoeuvres unfold as Chad and four neighbouring states prepare a taskforce to take on Boko Haram, the biggest security threat to Africa’s top energy producer Nigeria and an increasing concern to countries bordering it.
Boko Haram killed 10,000 people last year in its campaign to carve an Islamic emirate out of northern Nigeria.
The jihadist group, based less than 100 km (62 miles) from Chad’s capital N’Djamena, has escalated cross-border attacks in recent weeks in the Lake Chad area, where the territories of Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and Niger converge.
It carried out an attack on a Cameroon military camp on Monday.
The annual Flintlock exercises, which began in 2005, aim to improve cross-border military cooperation in Africa’s arid Sahel belt, a region prey to al Qaeda-linked and homegrown Islamists, separatist insurgents and criminal trafficking gangs.
Chad suffered its first known lethal attack by Boko Haram last week in what appeared to be a revenge strike after it deployed forces to attack the Islamist group’s fighters in the Nigerian border town of Gambaru.
“This exercise takes place in a regional environment with major security issues posed by terrorists, in particular Boko Haram,” Chadian Brigadier General Zakaria Ngobongue, the director of the exercise, said in a speech at a ceremony to launch Flintlock.
“This exercise to a large extent can be considered a warm-up to enable our special forces to learn techniques in the fight against terrorism,” he said.
More than 250 U.S. troops will take part in the exercise. Its objectives include intelligence-sharing, training for patrols, desert survival techniques, airborne operations and marksmanship, a U.S. military spokesman said.
In an effort to improve communications between regional armies, he said, the U.S. military will leave communications equipment behind after the exercises end on March 9.
Weak armies, poor communications and regional rivalries have hurt efforts to improve military cooperation in the Sahel. The 2012 occupation of Mali’s north by a mix of separatist and Islamist forces underscored the region’s fragility.
Chad’s battle-hardened military played a major role in a French-led offensive to liberate northern Mali in 2013, but Islamist militants still carry out attacks against a U.N. peacekeeping mission in the region.
Nations taking part in Flintlock include Algeria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Tunisia. (Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Mark Heinrich)