MAIDUGURI, Nigeria – Thousands of refugees are fleeing northeast Nigeria into Cameroon, the U.N. refugee agency reported Wednesday, as extremists pursue a new strategy to hold land they are calling an "Islamic caliphate."
Hundreds of Cameroonians also are abandoning their homes since Nigerian Islamic extremists last week began attacking villages in the neighboring country, UNHCR spokeswoman Helene Caux told The Associated Press.
In one instance Boko Haram fighters slit the throats of three people found in a Catholic Church in the Cameroonian village of Assighassia, she said. That also is a new tactic for Boko Haram, which previously had only kidnapped Cameroon citizens for ransom.
More than 10,000 Nigerians have crossed into Cameroon and Niger since last week, said Caux. Another 1,700 Cameroonians have fled their homes near the border to move further inland, she said. Cameroon is hosting about 39,000 Nigerian refugees and Niger some 50,000, in addition to an estimated 645,000 Nigerians displaced within the country by the Islamic insurgency, according to UNHCR figures.
The most recent influx of Nigerians to Cameroon comes from Bama, the second largest city in Nigeria's northeast Borno state. The state government on Tuesday said Bama has not fallen to Boko Haram, denying reports from some residents and security officials that the city has been seized by the extremists.
Borno state deputy Gov. Zannah Umar Mustapha called for calm in a statewide broadcast, denying that Boko Haram had taken the city and might be heading for Maiduguri.
The civilian volunteer force fighting Boko Haram also denied that Bama had fallen, with spokesman Jubrin Gunda saying the military fought off the group's attack.
Borno Sen. Ali Ndume said the situation remained confused with conflicting reports. He said a Nigerian Air Force bombing raid against militants who had seized the military barracks in Bama was bungled. The attack took place after soldiers had dislodged the rebels, killing troops and civilians who had sought shelter at the barracks, Ndume said.
Only those who are too old or sick to move remain in Bama, which has a population of about 200,000, he said.
"The military is claiming that they have repelled the insurgents but the fact is that whether that is true or not, people are fleeing Bama in their hundreds, some are even trekking (on foot)," he said on Tuesday.
Taking Bama would open the way for the extremists to attack state capital Maiduguri, the city 45 miles away which also is the headquarters of the Nigerian military's campaign to contain Boko Haram. As fears grew of an attack on that city, the military this week extended the curfew in Maiduguri, ordering people to remain in their homes from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m.
The military did not comment officially but Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Chris Olukolade posted a tweet Wednesday quoting the state government saying "Bama is not in the hands of terrorists; situation in the region is being contained."