The Nigerian government said Tuesday it would release many suspects held for “terrorist activities,” including all women in custody, in what it called a peace gesture to the Islamists it is battling in the north.
The announcement came as the authorities pressed ahead with a nearly week-old offensive against Boko Haram insurgents in the northeast, while the Red Cross said at least 2,400 people had fled violence in the region.
“Consequent upon the directives of the president … the Defence Headquarters will be releasing from detention a number of persons being held in connection with terrorist activities,” a defence statement said, adding it included “all women under custody.”
Boko Haram has previously demanded the release of women prisoners, though the defence statement made no mention of the demand.
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The statement said the move was linked to recommendations from a panel set up by the presidency to explore options for dialogue with the insurgents.
“The measure, which is in line with presidential magnanimity to enhance peace efforts in the country, will result in freedom for suspects including all women under custody,” it said.
Nigerian authorities have been accused of unlawful detentions and indiscriminate arrests in connection with the Islamist insurgency.
Residents caught up in the violence were given a measure of relief on Tuesday, with authorities relaxing a round-the-clock curfew in the northeastern Nigerian city of Maiduguri, Boko Haram’s stronghold.
The relaxing of the curfew, initially imposed on Saturday, allowed residents to begin venturing out between 7:00 am (0600 GMT) and 5:00 pm to restock on food and supplies.
“I have been indoor since Saturday night because of the 24-hour curfew,” one resident said. “I have to come out today to get money in the bank and purchase food items and other essential commodities for my family.”
However, the government gave no sign that its offensive would let up and requested support from neighbouring Niger.
“As you know, there are operations in progress in Nigeria in three states very affected by the problem of terrorism, and we are hoping to have support from the Republic of Niger in the battle to defeat these terrorists,” Nigerian junior foreign minister Nurudeen Muhammed said.
Speaking in Niger after talks with President Mahamadou Issoufou, he did not specify what type of support.
Nigeria launched the sweeping operation on May 15, deploying thousands of troops across three states — Adamawa, Borno and Yobe — where President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency after the Islamists seized territory.
Fighter jets targeted Boko Haram strongholds in the offensive seeking to end the deadly Islamist insurgency underway since 2009. Telecommunications in affected areas have been out of service since the weekend.
On Monday, Nigeria’s military said it had re-established control in five remote areas of the northeast. About 120 of the insurgents had also been arrested, the military had said.
Nigeria’s military has previously been accused of major abuses in its fight against Boko Haram, and activists as well as the United States have raised concerns over the latest fighting.
The Boko Haram conflict is estimated to have cost 3,600 lives since 2009, including killings by the security services.
At least 2,400 people had fled violence in northern Nigeria and were being provided with emergency supplies in the Diffa area of Niger, the Red Cross said Tuesday.
“These people, most of whom are originally from Niger but settled in Nigeria some time back, in some cases decades ago, are completely destitute,” said Jean-Nicolas Marti, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross’ regional delegation for Niger and Mali.
“They have been taken in by families that are sharing their meagre resources with them.”
The Red Cross noted that the Diffa area was the scene earlier this year of severe flooding.
“If population displacement were to continue at the current pace, or to increase, there is a risk that the delicate economic and food balance in the area could be destroyed, with consequences for the resident population,” said Marti.
In neighbouring Cameroon, authorities have tightened border controls to prevent fleeing Boko Haram insurgents from taking refuge there.
“But it is not easy to track down suspected Boko Haram members because of the porosity of the borders,” a police officer in the Fotokol district told AFP.
“With the massive influx of Nigerians last week, it is absolutely necessary to intensify patrols so that certain members of Boko Haram do not infiltrate into our territory.”
Motorcycles and Cameroonian vehicles are not allowed into Gamboru, a Nigerian border town.
Residents are only allowed to cross a bridge linking both borders by foot between 0900 GMT and 1700 GMT.