Suspected Boko Haram Islamist fighters from Nigeria kidnapped around 80 people, many of them children, and killed three others in a cross-border attack on villages in northern Cameroon, army and government officials said.
Last night there were reports at least 24 people had been freed. A spokesman for Cameroon’s defence ministry was quoted as saying the hostages were freed “as defence forces pursued the attackers who were heading back to Nigeria”.
It was one of the biggest abductions by Boko Haram outside Nigeria and raised fears that it is expanding its attacks.
The militant Islamist group has seized control of towns and villages in north-east Nigeria and has begun threatening neighbouring countries.
Chad, which also borders Nigeria, has recently sent soldiers to help Cameroon tackle the militants.
The abductions took place in the villages of Maki and Mada near the city of Mokolo in Cameroon’s far north region.
Cameroon officials said the militants arrived on Sunday morning when it was dark. Many of those seized were said to be women and children. Some reports said at least 30 of the 80-strong group were children.
Eyewitnesses told how that before leaving, the attackers burned more than a hundred homes to the ground.
Cameroon has not given details about its military operation and there has been no word from those freed or from the militants.
On Friday, Ghana’s president, John Mahama, said African leaders would discuss plans this week to “deal permanently” with Boko Haram, and suggested a multinational force may be considered.
Niger and Cameroon have criticised Nigeria for failing to do more to stop Boko Haram’s attacks.
Nigerian politicians are understood to be more focused on campaigning for elections next month than on security issues, and senior figures rarely comment on the insurgency in the north-east.
The abductions in Cameroon came just days after the country’s army said it had killed 143 Boko Haram militants who had attacked one of its bases at Kolofata near the Nigerian border. That was the first major attack on Cameroon since Boko Haram threatened the country’s leader in a video posted online earlier this month.
Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau claimed responsibility for the high-profile kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls in Nigeria last year
The organisation was founded in 2002 and initially focused on opposing Western education – Boko Haram means “Western education is forbidden” in the Hausa language
It launched military operations in 2009.
Thousands have been killed, mostly in north-eastern Nigeria and militants have also attacked police and UN headquarters in the capital, Abuja.
Boko Haram – which has caused havoc in Africa’s most populous country through a wave of bombings, assassinations and now abductions – is fighting to overthrow the government and create an Islamic state.
Its followers are said to be influenced by the Koranic phrase which says: “Anyone who is not governed by what Allah has revealed is among the transgressors”.
Boko Haram promotes a version of Islam which makes it “haram”, or forbidden, for Muslims to take part in any political or social activity associated with Western society.
This includes voting in elections, wearing shirts and trousers or receiving a secular education. Boko Haram regards the Nigerian state as being run by non-believers, even when the country had a Muslim president.