Yaounde (Cameroon) (AFP) – In the town of Fotokol on Cameroon’s border with Nigeria, civilian vigilantes are risking their lives keeping a lookout for suicide bombers from the deadly Boko Haram group.
« We’re on high alert day and night to protect our city from Boko Haram kamikaze attacks, » said Modo, a civilian hoping to keep the volatile extreme north safe from Islamist fighters across the border in neighbouring Nigeria.
Earlier this month, five people were killed and 10 hurt when a woman blew herself up in the village chief’s home as three other suicide bombers were seen by vigilantes « heading towards the centre of town ».
Seeing they had been detected they blew themselves up — but there were no other victims.
The vigilantes, said regional governor Midjiyawa Bakari, provide « substantial backup » on the intelligence front and some are being equipped with metal detectors to help them ward off fresh assaults.
In the attack-prone region, vigilante groups have been active against the Boko Haram threat for more than a year, while across the border in Nigeria civilians have long cooperated with the army to curb attacks.
On November 9 for instance, a vigilante named Danna spotted two apparent female suicide bombers in Fotokol, Modo said.
« He tried to neutralise one of them using his arms, but she detonated the explosives she was wearing, » killing Danna and two other civilians, Modo told AFP by telephone.
But « thanks to him, the suicide attackers never got to the market as planned. »
The two girls had spent the night with a relative in the village after travelling from the Nigerian city of Dikwa, around 70 kilometres (45 miles) from Fotokol.
The relative was a Nigerian who had fled to Cameroon to avoid the trouble at home.
– Bombs assembled in Nigeria –
Security sources said that since 2012, Boko Haram has set up a web of contacts in Cameroon enabling the extremist group to nab Western hostages and set up a trafficking network dealing in arms, vehicles and merchandise.
In 2014, Cameroon went into battle to crack the network but has not managed to dismantle it. And ever since the Cameroonian army joined a regional military alliance to fight Boko Haram, the north has become a favoured target for the Islamists.
Since July alone, Boko Haram has staged more than 16 suicide attacks in the region, leaving more than 100 people dead.
The porous border enables attackers to travel easily into Cameroon, where they can target gathering places such as markets and mosques.
In general, the explosives kill in a radius of around 50 metres (yards), said an officer from the rapid intervention battalion (BIR) tasked with battling Boko Haram.
« We think the explosives are assembled in Nigeria, with munitions seized during attacks on military bases, » he said.
While in most cases the explosives were detonated by the bombers themselves, some evidence suggests that vests on child bombers may be set off remotely.
– ‘We’ve become like soldiers’ –
The attackers usually go through a « very thorough indoctrination process », the officer said, with some under the influence of drugs.
« They’re given Tramol (a numbing drug used to relieve pain in several countries in the region), or cannabis before being sent on missions. »
The vigilantes often use bladed weapons, machetes, knives and spears in a first line of defence against suicide attacks — a local shield of sorts.
« We’ve become like soldiers. We track Boko Haram, » said a vigilante in the village of Amchide, who asked not to be identified, and who is part of a group of more than 200.
The group has arrested 50 suspected Islamists since December last year after drawing up a list of more than 200 potential Boko Haram fighters.
But this makes them prime targets for Boko Haram. Four of them were killed on November 13 in an attack on the village of Assighassia, and two more were killed two days later near Amchide.
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