November 24, 2018 / 10:04 PM / 21 days ago

Nigeria's Buhari breaks silence on soldier deaths in Islamist attack

ABUJA (Reuters) - Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari on Saturday ended almost a week of silence regarding attacks by Islamists which security sources said killed around 100 soldiers in the northeastern state of Borno.

FILE PHOTO: Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari addresses the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 25, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri/File Photo

“President Muhammadu Buhari has expressed deep shock over the killing of military personnel,” the presidency said in an emailed statement issued by Buhari’s spokesman, Garba Shehu.

“Immediate measures are being taken to ensure that the loopholes which led to the fatalities are blocked once and for all,” it said, adding that Buhari would hold strategic talks with military chiefs in the coming days.

Militants attacked a military base on Nov 18 in the village of Metele in Borno, the epicentre of an insurgency by Boko Haram and its splinter group, Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA).

The attack was carried out by ISWA and killed around 100 Nigerian soldiers, four security sources told Reuters.

A fifth said 96 soldiers have died in the northeast in recent days, mostly in Metele, and Islamic State has claimed responsibility for attacks in the last few days.

The toll is among the highest since Buhari came to power in 2015 and has raised pressure on him ahead of an election in February, not least because he has claimed victory over the nine-year insurgency.

Lawmakers in the Senate, parliament’s upper chamber, whose president is among Buhari’s political opponents, this week said 44 soldiers died in the Metele attack even though the military and presidency had not commented.

Analysts said it was a bid to undermine Buhari’s security record.

Saturday’s statement from the presidency, which did not make reference to the number of soldiers killed, follows days of criticism of the military and presidency in the Nigerian press and social media over their silence.

Buhari’s main opponent in the coming presidential poll, former vice president Atiku Abubakar, has repeatedly posted messages about the dead soldiers on Twitter in recent days.

The Nigerian Army issued a statement on Friday in which it confirmed that the attack on the military base had taken place but did not provide details of casualties.

Buhari, a retired general and former military ruler, made defeating the Islamist insurgency a central plank of his successful 2015 election campaign after attacks by Boko Haram in the run-up to that election weakened then-president Goodluck Jonathan.

Reporting by Felix Onuah; additional reporting by Alexis Akwagyiram and Paul Carsten in Lagos; editing by Jason Neely

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