MAIDUGURI - A massive assault by Boko Haram in the northeast Nigerian town of Damboa displaced more than 15,000 people, an official said on Monday, as the security forces sent reinforcements to flush out the Islamist fighters.
The attack on Damboa began late on Thursday but continued through the weekend, with witnesses saying that civilians were left defenceless by the security forces who withdrew from the area earlier this month.
Officials from the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) were struggling to establish a death toll amid multiple reports that Boko Haram fighters were still occupying the town, having hoisted their flag above a public building.
Abdulkadir Ibrahim of NEMA told journalists that at least 15,204 people had fled Damboa to escape the Islamist onslaught.
"The number of displaced in (the town of) Biu is 10,204. We have 3,000 in Maiduguri and 2,000 in Goniri," he said.
Multiple media outlets on Monday reported that Boko Haram had taken over Damboa and were seeking to establish themselves as the local authority, something the Nigerian Islamists are not widely known to do.
However the military tried to downplay the extent of the crisis.
"We are not conceding any portion of this country to any terrorist group," defence spokesman Chris Olukolade said.
"Security agencies are firming up deployment of troops in the entire area...We are also going to reverse every form of insecurity in that area very soon," he added.
Boko Haram has relentlessly targeted civilians across the northeast, killing more than 2,000 already this year, and staged brazen attacks on the security forces.
Should the Islamists prove capable of holding their ground in Damboa in the face of a military assault, it would be a major embarrassment for the security forces and mark a significant setback in Nigeria's effort to crush the five-year uprising.
Residents who fled the town and spoke to AFP anonymously said scores of elderly people who could not run are still trapped, but those details could not be independently confirmed.
They said they saw corpses littering the roads throughout the town as they ran to safety.
In the hours after the assault began, locals said the insurgents executed people who tried to surrender.
Witnesses have described the attack as the worst ever in Damboa, one of many towns in embattled Borno state that been attacked repeatedly by the extremist group blamed for killing more than 10,000 people since 2009.
However the first half of 2014 has been one of the bloodiest stretches of the insurgency, with the Islamists seemingly able to attack at will, both in remote areas and key urban centres.
The capital Abuja has been hit by three separate bomb attacks since April, while a twin car bombing in the key central city of Jos killed at least 118 people in May, Nigeria's deadliest ever bomb attack.
President Goodluck Jonathan, who is widely expected to seek re-election next year, is facing unprecedented pressure to end the bloodshed.
Last week, he asked parliament to approve a $1 billion dollar foreign loan to upgrade the security services, specifically noting the need to bolster their capacity in combatting the Boko Haram threat.