About 20 Nigerian soldiers are missing after a clash with Boko Haram militants in the north-east, security sources said, denying reports some troops could not be found.
The confrontation between militants and troops took place on Saturday in the Bama area of Borno, the state worst hit by the jihadist group which has killed more than 30,000 people since 2009 when it launched an insurgency to create an Islamic caliphate.
Three soldiers told Reuters more than 20 were missing.
“We lost some soldiers in the attack. It is possible those missing are dead. We haven’t seen about 23 of them now,” said an officer who did not want to be named.
Another soldier said the troops were ambushed while conducting a “clearance operation”, adding “over 20 soldiers have not been seen up till now”. He said five military vehicles were taken.
The militant group carries out suicide bomb attacks in crowded places, such as markets, as well as raids and attacks on military bases.
At a news conference, the military said media reports of soldiers missing was untrue.
An army spokesman said suspected Boko Haram militants tried to seize military vehicles in an attempted attack on troops in Bama but they were repelled by troops supported by the air force.
“About 22 Boko Haram terrorists were neutralised while several others escaped with gunshot wounds. Efforts are being intensified to get the fleeing Boko Haram terrorists,” said a military spokesman.
Boko Haram held territory around the size of Belgium in northeast Nigeria for several months until being pushed off much of that land in early 2015 by Nigeria’s army and troops from neighbouring countries.
Bama, south-east of Borno state capital Maiduguri, was held by Boko Haram from September 2014 until March 2015.
Nigeria’s government said since December 2015 Boko Haram was “technically defeated”. Attacks continue in the north-east while another group, an Islamic State ally that split from Boko Haram in 2016, holds territory.