GWOZA, Nigeria – As the turbaned militant lifted his head from his Quran and readied to dash to his anti-aircraft gun, the helicopter pilot stuck the nose of his aircraft into the air and veered away. Then he called in the coordinates for an airstrike.
It was a chilling reminder that Boko Haram extremists still are in northeast Nigeria with all sorts of weapons even as Nigeria's military officials boast that they have ousted them from all major towns and forest camps.
Each day brings new reports of atrocities, with mass graves being discovered in towns seized back from the militants who had tried to set up an "Islamic caliphate" across a great swath of northeast Nigeria.
Just this week, survivors described how the insurgents arrived in a village, saying they had come to preach Islam. When villagers gathered in front of the mosque, the extremists opened fire. When some ran into the mosque, the militants set it ablaze, burning alive some of their victims.
"As I speak to you, all the towns they previously occupied ... have been cleared, so they really have no base," said defense ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Chris Olukolade. "All we are doing at the moment is mopping up and conducting cordon and search for weapons and as many of them as may be straggling."
Boko Haram has been left "marauding from place to place," he told The Associated Press. The AP and journalists from other media organizations were taken on Wednesday by military helicopter to Gwoza, a "newly liberated" city of burned-out buildings.
On the outskirts, an Arabic script sign left by the militants was smashed to the ground. Decomposing bodies lay scattered, including those of a woman and child. Others had lain there long enough to turn to skeletons.
A young man showed reporters the stump from his amputated right hand, chopped off with a machete under the harsh form of Islamic law imposed by the insurgents. They accused him of stealing fuel, a charge he denies.
"I told them I am a mechanic, and they said since you are a mechanic you will work for us," said Hassan Usman, speaking in the local Hausa language. "When I told them I could not work for them, they said they would kill me."
Just 35 kilometers (22 miles) away, Cameroonian troops were battling the insurgents, according to reports reaching The Associated Press in Maiduguri, the biggest city in northeastern Nigeria.
With soldiers from neighboring Chad, Cameroon and Niger, Boko Haram has been ousted in recent weeks from towns held for months. But Chadian President Idriss Deby has complained that Nigeria's military is not doing its part.
"Two months after the beginning of this war, we have not had a single direct contact on the ground with units of the Nigerian army. This is why, more than once, Chadian forces have been obliged to retake towns and advance again," Deby said in an interview published March 26 in the French magazine Le Point.
Olukolade did not respond directly to questions about border towns that have been seized by Chadian troops who then withdraw, leaving Boko Haram to return.
Boko Haram's nearly 6-year-old Islamic uprising in northeast Nigeria that has killed thousands — a reported 10,000 just last year — and forced more than 1.5 million from their homes.
Nigerians' displeasure over the government's conduct in the war was a factor in their booting President Goodluck Jonathan out of office in March 28 elections — the first time that an opposition politician has ousted an incumbent.
President-elect Muhammadu Buhari, who takes office on May 29, is a former military dictator whom many Nigerian hope will use his military background to definitively stamp out Boko Haram.
Faul reported from Lagos, Nigeria.