Boko Haram, taking to hills, seize slave "brides"

Reuters

(Corrects date of LRA truce, paragraph 17)

* Boko Haram kidnap women to convert, make "wives" -escapee

* Guerrillas withdrawn to hills, mounting attacks

* Concern that Islamist violence spreading in Africa

* Nigerian official say insurgency will be defeated

By Joe Brock

ABUJA, Nov 17 (Reuters) - In the gloom of a hilltop cave inNigeria where she was held captive, Hajja had a knife pressed toher throat by a man who gave her a choice - convert to Islam ordie.

Two gunmen from Boko Haram had seized the Christian teenagerin July as she picked corn near her village in the Gwoza hills,a remote part of northeastern Nigeria where a six-month-oldgovernment offensive is struggling to contain an insurgency bythe al Qaeda-linked Islamist group.

In a new development, Boko Haram is abducting Christianwomen whom it converts to Islam on pain of death and then forcesinto "marriage" with fighters - a tactic that recalls JosephKony's Lord's Resistance Army in the jungles of Uganda.

The three months Hajja spent as the slave of a 14-strongguerrilla unit, cooking and cleaning for them before sheescaped, give a rare glimpse into how the Islamists have changedtack in the face of Nigerian military pressure.

"I can't sleep when I think of being there," the 19-year-oldtold Reuters, recounting forced mountain marches, rebelintelligence gathering - and watching her captors slit thethroats of prisoners Hajja had helped lure into a trap.

Nigerian security officials say the Islamists have pulledback after army assaults since May on their bases on thesemi-desert plain and are now sheltering in the Mandaramountains, along the Cameroon border around the city of Gwoza.From the hills they have been launching increasingly deadlyattacks.

The rugged mountain terrain - as fellow al Qaeda alliesfound in Afghanistan - has proven an advantageous base for amovement that once styled itself the "Nigerian Taliban" and seesall non-Muslims as infidels who must convert or be killed.

The United States designated Boko Haram a terrorist group onWednesday. Western governments are increasingly concerned aboutthe wider threat posed by the group, which wants to create anIslamic state in a religiously mixed country of 170 million andwhich has ties with al Qaeda's north African wing.

Hajja's account of how Boko Haram has adapted and survivedin recent months underlines the difficulties governments in theregion face. The spread of the threat was underscored by thekidnap on Thursday of a French priest in Cameroon, an attackFrance believes may have involved Boko Haram.

The following day, Nigerian troops raided a base for thegroup in the Gwoza hills. The army said it killed 29 Boko Haramfighters and was "closing in" on the rebels.

FORCED TO CONVERT

The group, whose name broadly translates as "Westerneducation is sinful", has killed thousands during a four-yearinsurgency against the Nigerian state, targeting the police andarmed forces as well as politicians and then turning onChristians in the predominantly Muslim north of the country.

The military offensive launched in mid-May, and the factthat large numbers of civilian vigilantes have supported it, hastriggered a fierce backlash against local people by Boko Haram.The militants have killed hundreds in the past few weeks,including in massacres of school children.

The Islamists dragged Hajja along rocky mountain paths andslept in caves in the hills, a landscape unfamiliar to mostNigerian soldiers, recruited from the plains.

She ceremonially converted to Islam, cooked for the men,carried ammunition during an attack on a police outpost and wasabout to be married to one of the insurgents before she managedto engineer a dramatic escape. She says she was not raped.

"If I cried, they beat me. If I spoke, they beat me. Theytold me I must become a Muslim but I refused again and again,"Hajja told Reuters in an interview. Her family name is withheldto protect relatives still living in the Gwoza area.

"They were about to slaughter me and one of them begged menot to resist and just before I had my throat slit I relented.They put a veil on me and made me read from the Koran," she saidin the Nigerian capital, Abuja, where she is now living.

At least a dozen teenagers like her remain in captivity,Michael Yohanna, a councillor in Gwoza's local government toldReuters. Some have married commanders, recalling Kony's LRA,which abducted thousands of "wives" in a 20-year war in Ugandabefore a truce in 2006. Kony remains a fugitive.

A man called Ibrahim Tada Nglayike led the group Hajja waswith. On one mission, Hajja was sent to stand in a field near avillage to attract the attention of civilians working with thearmy. When five men approached her, they were ambushed.

"They took them back to a cave and tied them up. They cuttheir throats, one at a time," Hajja said. "I thought my heartwould burst out of my chest, because I was the bait."

Among those who did the killing was the Muslim wife of theleader Nglayike, the only other woman in the band of fighters.

Reuters verified Hajja's account of having been abductedwith independent figures in the region. Boko Haram shuns themedia and none of its members could be contacted for comment.

Hajja says the long-bearded insurgents lived a basiclifestyle, eating corn, millet and occasionally meat fromanimals they stole and which she slaughtered.

The group, armed with AK-47 rifles and pistols stolen frompolice they killed, moved every day around the hills to avoidbeing tracked by the army and slept in the caves to shelter fromthe cold and for protection against air assaults.

"They didn't use phones but they had a radio," Hajja said.

"They would listen to BBC Hausa or Voice of America and jumpand shout if they heard about Boko Haram attacks."

"TOOTHPASTE EFFECT"

Forced out of cities and semi-desert bases since Jonathandeclared a state of emergency in May, the militants have mostlyretreated to hills and forests on the Cameroon border.

"It's the toothpaste effect: squeeze one end and it comesout the other. They have proven resilient and are adaptingfaster than the military," a Nigerian security source said.

Army commanders denied Boko Haram had any control over theGwoza mountains: "We are curtailing their activities and I canassure you that ... the insurgency will soon be a thing of thepast," Lieutenant Colonel Adamu Garba Laka said.

But a Nigerian general asked Cameroon this month for help infighting Boko Haram, and the backlash against civilians has madethe conflict deadlier than ever.

According to one security source, in the five months afterJonathan declared a state of emergency in the northeast therewere 1,708 deaths in 83 violent clashes, compared with 667deaths from 117 incidents in the previous five months.

Pushing the conflict into poor rural regions, like Gwoza,where Hajja was seized, runs the risk of radicalising moredisenchanted youths and drawing more people into the violence.

"Gwoza has disintegrated. We have no schools, no hospitals,no government offices functioning," said councillor Yohanna.

"I worry that youths will take the law into their own hands.It will become a war between Christians and Muslims."

Insurgents moved freely through the hills and even into thetown of Gwoza, Hajja said. Fighters made trips to collect cash,ammunition and weapons from the Sambisa Game Reserve, a forestedregion where Boko Haram has established camps.

Informants, mostly farmers, would warn them of approachingarmy patrols, Hajja said, adding that the rebels also appearedto have sympathetic contacts among the troops - somethingNigerian military commanders deny.

"They know the area very well and many people help thembecause they are afraid or support their cause," Hajja said.

On once occasion, Boko Haram commanders were able travelfrom Maiduguri, the state capital on the plain north of Gwoza,to meet the guerrilla group in the hills.

Hajja said her unit carried out dozens of attacks, killingpolice and anyone suspected of aiding authorities.

The longer the insurgency goes on, President GoodluckJonathan, a southern Christian, will come under increasingcriticism from his northern opponents as elections in early 2015draw closer.

He risks growing resentment from a northern population whobelieve he is out of touch with their troubles.

It is also becoming a drain on Africa's second largesteconomy - Nigeria allocates a fifth of its budget for security.

Hajja eventually escaped by feigning severe stomach pains.Thinking her too ill to flee, the insurgents sent her tohospital escorted only by an older woman. Once she was amongother people, Hajja threatened to denounce the group to police,prompting the woman to abandon her and flee.

"I finally tore off the veil and I cried," Hajja said.

"So many times I thought I'd die." ($1 = 159 naira) (Additional reporting by Isaac Abrak in Abuja and IbrahimMshelizza and Lanre Ola in Maiduguri; Editing by Tim Cocks andAlastair Macdonald)

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