KADUNA, Nigeria (Reuters) - The leader of Boko Haram Islamist rebels has said in a video that the Nigerian military offensive is failing in its goal of crushing the four-year-old insurgency.
Abubakar Shekau’s statement, in a video seen by Reuters on Wednesday, was the first word from Boko Haram since President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency on May 14 in the three northeastern states worst hit by the insurgency.
Thousands of extra troops were sent to the region and Boko Haram camps were hit with air strikes. The military has since claimed that insurgents have been halted.
The intervention followed a surge in violence in Nigeria’s northeast by Boko Haram, which wants to establish an Islamic state there, but Shekau denied he was losing the battle.
“My fellow brethren from all over the world I assure you that we are strong, hail and hearty since they launched this assault on us following the state of emergency declaration,” he said, dressed in camouflage with an AK-47 rifle resting behind him.
“When they launch any attack on us you see soldiers fleeing and throwing away their weapons like a rabbit that is been hunted down,” he added, speaking in a mixture of Arabic and the Hausa language common in northern Nigeria.
The defense ministry did not respond to requests for comment on the video.
Shekau asked his brethren in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Syria to join what he called Boko Haram’s Holy War. It was not clear when the video was recorded but the mention of the state of emergency dates it to after May 14.
The hour-long footage goes on to show apparently dead bodies in military uniform and charred armored vehicles which Shekau said were evidence of victories in clashes with soldiers.
Stood outside in the sort of dusty plains common in northeast Nigeria, a dozen armed and masked men in military style uniforms then display weapons to the camera, including a ground-to-air rocket launcher and rocket propelled grenades.
The military assault in the semi-deserts along the borders with Cameroon, Chad and Niger is Jonathan’s biggest effort yet to end the insurgency. Security sources said soldiers from Niger and Cameroon are also involved.
Nigeria’s population of 170 million is split roughly evenly between Christians, who dominate in the south, and Muslims, who are the majority in the north.
Boko Haram and other Islamist groups like the al Qaeda linked Ansaru have become the biggest risk to stability in Nigeria, Africa’s top oil producer and second largest economy.
Western governments are concerned that Nigerian Islamists are strengthening ties with al Qaeda linked groups in the Sahel, drawing on weapons from recent Libyan and Malian conflicts.
The military has said it has arrested more than 100 insurgents, freed hostages and killed several Boko Haram members in recent days. But its statements made no mention of the sort of counter-strikes Boko Haram have launched in the past.
The military said this week it killed a “high profile terrorist” known as Abba, while a close associate of Shekau’s was found dead on the border between Nigeria and Niger.
Shekau said only seven Boko Haram members have been killed since the offensive began.
The Defense Ministry said last week that the insurgents had been dislodged but security experts doubt it will be easy to defeat an enemy adept at re-arming and counter-attacking in remote regions where they have operated for years.
It has been impossible to verify the claims of Shekau or the military because telephone services have been disconnected for 12 days in Borno state, where the bulk of the fighting has taken place.
Jonathan said last week he would free a number of Islamist suspects, mostly women and children, in what security sources believe was a move to build popular support. He has also offered an amnesty to insurgents who lay down their weapons but Shekau has shown no interest in proposed peace talks.
Nigeria’s military have been criticized by rights groups and western governments following accusations of extra-judicial killings, unlawful detentions and high civilian casualties.
The military denies it commits rights abuses and says civilians are killed because Boko Haram uses them as a shield.
Additional reporting by Augustine Madu and Mike Oboh; Writing by Joe Brock; Editing by Jon Boyle