Nigeria has recruited hundreds of mercenaries from South Africa and the former Soviet Union to bolster its offensive against Boko Haram ahead of national elections this month.
The use of foreign mercenaries against the Islamist militant group emerged this month with pictures on Twitter showing armoured vehicles rumbling along a street in what was said to be Maiduguri, the capital of Nigeria’s north-east region.
In one, a white man in body armour is shown beside a heavy-calibre machine gun on top of one vehicle as the column drives through the streets at dusk. In confirming the presence of hundreds of foreign military contractors, security and diplomatic sources put the total much higher than the hundred or so previously reported.
The rise of Boko Haram
The rise of Boko Haram
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The leader of the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram Abubakar Shekau delivers a message. Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for the mass killings in the north-east Nigerian town of Baga in a video where he warned the massacre “was just the tip of the iceberg”. As many as 2,000 civilians were killed and 3,700 homes and business were destroyed in the 3 January 2015 attack on the town near Nigeria's border with Cameroon
2/19 Boko Haram
People displaced as a result of Boko Haram attacks in the northeast region of Nigeria, are seen near their tents at a faith-based camp for internally displaced people (IDP) in Yola, Adamawa State. Boko Haram says it is building an Islamic state that will revive the glory days of northern Nigeria's medieval Muslim empires, but for those in its territory life is a litany of killings, kidnappings, hunger and economic collapse
3/19 Boko Haram
Nitsch Eberhard Robert, a German citizen abducted and held hostage by suspected Boko Haram militants, is seen as he arrives at the Yaounde Nsimalen International airport after his release in Yaounde, Cameroon on 21 January 2015
4/19 Boko Haram
Officials of the Nigerian National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) visit victims of a bomb blast in Gombe at the Specialist Hospital in Gombe. According to local reports at least six people were killed and 11 wounded after a bomb blast in a marketplace in Nigeria's northeastern state of Gombe on 16 January 2015. Islamist militant group Boko Haram has been blamed for a string of recent attacks in the North East of Nigeria
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People gather at the site of a bomb explosion in a area know to be targeted by the militant group Boko Haram in Kano on 28 November 2014
6/19 Boko Haram
People gather to look at a burnt vehicle following a bomb explosion that rocked the busiest roundabout near the crowded Market in Maiduguri, Borno State on 1 July 2014. A truck exploded in a huge fireball killing at least 15 people in the northeast Nigerian city of Maiduguri, the city repeatedly hit by Boko Haram Islamists
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President Goodluck Jonathan visits Nigerian Army soldiers fighting Boko Haram
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Displaced people from Baga listen to Goodluck Jonathan after the Boko Haram killings
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Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan speaking to troops during a visit to Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State; most of the region has been overrun by Boko Haram
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Members of the Nigerian military patrolling in Maiduguri, North East Nigeria, close to the scene of attacks by Boko Haram
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Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, appears in a video in which he warns Cameroon it faces the same fate as Nigeria
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South Africans protest in solidarity against the abduction of hundreds of schoolgirls in Nigeria by the Muslim extremist group Boko Haram and what protesters said was the failure of the Nigerian government and international community to rescue them, during a march to the Nigerian Consulate in Johannesburg
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Boko Haram militants have seized the town in north-eastern Nigeria that nearly 300 schoolgirls were kidnapped from in April 2014
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A soldier stands guard in front of burnt buses after an attack in Abuja. Twin blasts at a bus station packed with morning commuters on the outskirts of Nigeria's capital killed dozens of people, in what appeared to be the latest attack by Boko Haram Islamists, April 2014
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The aftermath of the attack, when Boko Haram fighters in trucks painted in military colours killed 51 people in Konduga in February 2014
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The leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau (with papers) in a video grab taken in July 2014
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Ruins of burnt out houses in the north-eastern settlement of Baga, pictured after Boko Haram attacks in 2013
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A Boko Haram attack in Nigeria, 2013
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Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram’s leader
But Nigerian government and military spokesmen declined to officially comment.
President Goodluck Jonathan said this week that two companies were providing “trainers and technicians” to help Nigerian forces. He did not name the firms, or the nationalities, or give numbers.
But a South African defence source said the foreign troops were linked to bosses of the former South African private military firm Executive Outcomes, best known for its involvement in Angola’s 1975-2002 civil war and against Revolutionary United Front rebels in an internal conflict in Sierra Leone in 1995.
It disbanded in 1998, under pressure from South Africa’s post-apartheid government to curtail mercenary activities.
The source said several hundred foreigners were involved in running major offensive operations against Boko Haram, and were being paid around £270 a day in cash.
In recent weeks, after a string of defeats by Boko Haram fighters, the Nigerian military has appeared to make some progress against the jihadists.
This comes after elections due in mid-February were postponed for six weeks because of the threat from Boko Haram, which wants to establish an Islamic caliphate in northern Nigeria.
One diplomat said the South African mercenaries were backed by soldiers and equipment from the former Soviet Union in a “desperate ploy” to score a tactical success against Boko Haram, which has killed thousands of people in its six-year insurgency.
Former bosses of Executive Outcomes were unavailable for comment.