MAIDUGURI, Nigeria — Boko Haram extremists have overrun a key crossroads and military outpost in northeastern Nigeria, residents and authorities said Saturday. Gudumbali is a town to which just months ago the government encouraged thousands of displaced people to return.
The attack highlights the difficulties Nigeria's government has faced in trying to reassure well over 1.5 million people displaced by the deadly Islamic insurgency that it is winning the nearly decade-long fight against Boko Haram. It is a major challenge for President Muhammadu Buhari as elections approach next year.
The deputy governor of Borno state, Usman Durkwa, confirmed the attack on a military base in Gudumbali but "I am yet to get the number of casualties" from security forces.
The extremists attacked on Friday afternoon, said the Borno state secretary of the self-defense hunters association, Bunu Bukar.
"Suddenly, I saw people running all over the place shouting, 'They have come! They have come!'" resident Umara Modu told The Associated Press. "I saw the attackers right inside our town but, surprisingly, they told us to calmly take our property and move out because we are not the target."
He said about half the town's population fled as the extremists entered without resistance.
"I will never go back to Gudumbali again, no matter the assurance, because we went back after the military authority and the Borno state government promised us adequate security," Modu said.
Security forces had no immediate comment.
The fighters are thought to be with the Boko Haram faction under Abu Mus'ab al-Barnawi that has the backing of the Islamic State organization. That faction, also called the Islamic State's West Africa Province, claimed responsibility but announced no deaths, saying the military fled and that tanks and other vehicles and weapons were destroyed or seized, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors extremist groups' statements.
Gudumbali was the site of one of the deadliest encounters in the fight again Boko Haram, with scores of soldiers killed in 2015.
The town also was among the first communities targeted in a military operation launched earlier this year to return people displaced by Boko Haram to their homes in Nigeria's northeast with the goal of resuming normal life.
Thousands of people were returned to Gudumbali alone in recent months after spending years in displacement camps in the Borno state capital Maiduguri, the deputy governor said.
The government under Buhari more than once has declared Boko Haram defeated but the extremists continue to carry out attacks in the impoverished northeast and Lake Chad region.