Solomon Odeniyi, Gift Habib and Chika Otuchikere
The Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen. Taoreed Lagbaja, on Wednesday, visited Niger State, following the killing of soldiers by bandits in an ambush on Sunday.
A Nigerian Air Force helicopter also crashed in the Shiroro area of the state on Monday, with bandits taking credit for it.
The COAS, during his visit on Wednesday to the Forward Operating Base Erena in the Shiroro LGA, ordered immediate reinforcement of troops with equipment to enhance their operational effectiveness.
The Director, Army Public Relations, Brig. Gen. Onyema Nwachukwu, in a statement on Wednesday, quoted the Army chief as urging troops to be more resolute in bringing the nation’s adversaries to their knees.
Lagbaja said reclaiming the territories being occupied by the bandits was a task that must be done.
Encouraging the troops, he said, “Protecting lives and defending your nation is the noblest service anyone can offer. You are, therefore, in the noble profession of arms and must not allow your morale to dwindle.
“We must defeat the adversaries of our people and take back every inch of space where they are hibernating in our land.”
Lagbaja assured the troops that he would do all within available resources to give military personnel and their families the best in terms of welfare.
Meanwhile, our correspondent in Niger gathered that residents in the Shiroro LGA have started fleeing their homes over fears of imminent air raids by the military.
The PUNCH reported that the Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal Hassan Abubakar, on Tuesday, vowed that the military would wipe out bandits in Niger and other states, following the downing of a NAF helicopter.
The Dogo Gide-led bandits claimed responsibility for the downing of a military helicopter on Monday at Badna, Chukuba ward of Shiroro Local Government Area of Niger State.
The PUNCH also gathered that troops evacuating the remains of their colleagues were attacked by bandits on Tuesday,
A community leader in the area, who does not want his name in print, told one of our correspondents in a telephone interview that the bandits engaged the troops in a fierce battle.
He said, “It was a heavy battle between the Army and bandits yesterday (Tuesday). They wanted to evacuate the bodies of the soldiers killed but they (bandits) started shooting. Many soldiers started coming there. I heard they later took the bodies away because. I left to join others to leave the community to Mina yesterday. Those bandits are something else.”
A military source also confirmed to our correspondent the bandits confronted the troops on Tuesday.
The source said, “Very correct. It was a very close encounter and the casualties were more on their side. Before our troops could be reinforced, they managed to recover their casualties and a few were left behind.”
A Shiroro resident, who spoke to our correspondent anonymously, said residents of the areas had begun to flee their homes for fear of being caught in possible military air raids on bandits’ strongholds.
“Anybody could be caught up in the raid and that will be collateral damage. This information has forced residents to leave the village, hoping that when the situation calms down, they will come back. They don’t want to be caught in the raid.
“We don’t know how true the planned raid is but with the number of soldiers killed in the Sunday clash and the shooting down of the helicopter, the military is not happy and can decide to take any action.”
On Wednesday, Air Force called on Nigerians to desist from circulating a social media video “allegedly depicting the wreckage of the crashed MI-171 helicopter with bodies of victims at Chukuba village in Shiroro LGA of Niger State.”
NAF spokesperson, Air Commodore Edward Gabkwet, in a statement, said, “Those aiding and abetting the propaganda tendencies of terrorists by spreading the videos of the alleged crash site with gory pictures of dead military personnel should rethink the consequences of their actions on the morale of troops, families of deceased personnel as well as on Nigeria’s national security is imperative.”
While describing the video as propaganda, Gabkwet said crashes and fatalities were not unusual in counterinsurgency operations.
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“While the NAF regrets such unfortunate incidents, especially as they involve the loss of lives of our colleagues, the service will never shy away from unraveling the probable cause of the crash to draw lessons,” Gabkwet said.
He said NAF and the entire Armed Forces remained unshaken in their resolve to bring the terrorists to their knees, calling on Nigerians to support security agencies.
In a related development, the Commandant General, Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps, NSCDC, Ahmed Audi, pledged that security forces would rid Niger State of terrorists and other criminal elements.
A statement by the NSCDC spokesman, Babawale Afolabi, said Audi spoke during a visit to the Niger State Governor, Umar Bago.
He said the NSCDC would strengthen its working synergy with sister agencies in the state to address the security challenges in the state.
Audi said, “We came around to see for ourselves, a kind of on-the-spot assessment, of the security situation in Niger State and to familiarise ourselves with you.
“We hope to work on our synergy with other security agencies in the state and create a better security atmosphere for the people of Niger State.”
The governor appreciated Audi’s ‘timely visit’, saying activities of the bandits, cattle rustlers, and illegal miners among other criminalities in the state remained worrisome.
“Niger State is being referred to as the food basket of the country largely due to our largest land mass in the country which is also suitable for agriculture, but the growing security concern means that our people are constantly at the mercy of bandits and other criminal elements,” Bago lamented.