MAIDUGURI, Nigeria — Nigerian government soldiers, who witnesses said fled into neighboring Cameroon during a clash with a large number of Islamic fighters of Boko Haram, handed over their weapons to Cameroonian authorities and were on their way back to Nigeria, the Nigerian defense headquarters said.
Basuma Muhammed, a resident of Gamboru-Ngala, a town neighboring Cameroon where the clash took place Monday, said soldiers joined hundreds of civilians who fled into Cameroon.
Cameroon army spokesman Didier Badjek, in an interview with the BBC, put the number of Nigerian soldiers who fled across the border at 480. Nigeria's defense headquarters said in a statement posted on the Internet Monday that the soldiers were on their way back to Nigeria after following protocol by handing over "their weapons in order to assure the friendly country that they were not on a hostile mission."
Initially, the soldiers in the town were able to repel an attack by Boko Haram, killing many of their fighters, Muhammed said. "But hours after the attack, a bigger number of the Boko Haram gunmen arrived from the other side of the town and engaged the soldiers who could not stand their superior force and had to join us in running into Cameroon."
The defense headquarters statement said the Nigerian soldiers had performed a "tactical maneuver" when they found themselves in Cameroon.
In Maiduguri, the capital of Nigeria's Borno state and where the military joint task force has its headquarters, a junior officer said his colleagues who spoke with him from Cameroon described running out of ammunition and facing well-armed Islamic fighters. The officer insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency in three northeastern states in May 2013, saying the militants had taken over parts of Borno state, Boko Haram's birthplace.
After the emergency was imposed, the military seemed to be gaining control of parts of the northeast, killing militants and sending them fleeing into neighboring states. But Boko Haram's violent attacks have increased. Nigeria's fight against Boko Haram, which wants to impose Islamic rule in Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, began in 2009. Last April, the militants kidnapped hundreds of schoolgirls, most of whom still remain captive.
Boko Haram said it controls the northeastern city of Gwoza and has added it to an Islamic state that it claims it has established in Nigeria.
Gwoza, in Borno state, is now part of its "Islamic Caliphate" asserted Boko Haram's leader, Abubakar Shekau, in a video seen on Sunday.
Nigeria's army said on Twitter: "That claim is empty ... the Nigerian state is still intact."