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Nigerian military acknowledges presence of foreign mercenaries

Military officer says mercenaries are fighting Boko Haram but officials insist that foreigners are only 'training'

A senior Nigerian non-commissioned officer, who is on active duty and was wounded by Boko Haram, tells Al Jazeera that foreign mercenaries are doing the bulk of the fighting in towns the Nigerian military says it has recaptured from the armed group. The NCO said that the Nigerian military still suffers from a lack of equipment and low morale, and that without the mercenaries' help, these towns would still be held by Boko Haram fighters.

There have been numerous recent media reports that South African and other foreign mercenaries are assisting in the fight against Boko Haram.

A senior officer who is deployed on the front line against Boko Haram tells Al Jazeera that he does not have any foreign mercenaries who are working with his troops, but he did not deny that foreign mercenaries are operating alongside the Nigerian military. This officer is not deployed in Borno state, where the mercenaries have been spotted.

The Nigerian government and military do not deny that foreign mercenaries are in the country, but officials insist that these foreigners are training, not fighting.

In an interview with Voice of America on Wednesday, President Goodluck Jonathan said two companies were providing "trainers and technicians" to help Nigerian forces. He did not name the firms, or the nationalities, or give numbers.

But a West African security source and a South African defense source said the foreign troops were linked to the bosses of former South African private military firm Executive Outcomes.

Executive Outcomes was best known for its involvement in Angola's 1975-2002 civil war and against Revolutionary United Front rebels in an internal conflict in Sierra Leone in 1995. It disbanded in 1998 under pressure from the post-apartheid government in Pretoria to curtail mercenary activities.

The West African security source said several hundred foreigners were involved in running major offensive operations against Boko Haram, and were being paid around $400 a day in cash.

Their impact on the fighting so far could not be quantified, but the general run of the campaign has seen the tide turn somewhat against Boko Haram in recent weeks.

Separately, a South African defense contractor confirmed to Reuters that ex-Executive Outcomes leaders were involved in the deployment, which comes after the six-week postponement of elections in mid-February due to the threat from Boko Haram.

One Abuja-based diplomat said the South Africans were backed by soldiers and hardware from the former Soviet Union in an alliance against Boko Haram.

"It's an incoherent mix of people, helicopters and random kit from all sorts of different sources, but there is an element of internal cohesion from the Nigerian army," the diplomat said.

"It appears to be a desperate ploy to get some sort of tactical success up there in six weeks for the electoral boost," the diplomat added. The numbers of soldiers involved were in the "low hundreds," the diplomat added.

South Africa voices concern

After reports of South African military trainers first surfaced in the Afrikaans-language Beeld newspaper in January, Defense Minister Nosiviwe Mapise-Nqakula made clear her displeasure, saying any deployment would be illegal under 1998 anti-mercenary laws.

"They are mercenaries, whether they are training, skilling the Nigerian defense force, or scouting for them. The point is they have no business to be there," she was quoted as saying in domestic media this month.

South Africa bans its nationals from participating directly in hostilities for private gain. Georgia, seen as a major source of mercenaries, has laws before parliament criminalizing participation in a broad range of foreign military activities.

Reuters was unable to reach the former bosses of Executive Outcomes through military contacts in South Africa.

In a statement emailed to The Associated Press on Thursday, a government spokesman said that Nigeria has extensive experience in coordinating with other African militaries and leading peacekeeping missions across the continent.

"As a result, we are fully capable of enlisting soldiers from outside of Nigeria through the appropriate channels if needed,” said Mike Omeri. “Therefore, there is no cause for Nigeria to do any backchannel or unlawful recruitment."

Omeri noted the involvement of soldiers from regional militaries in the fight against Boko Haram, and said other "individuals" from the region "are on the ground in a capacity limited to training or technical support."

The statement from Omeri came as a spokesman for Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), an armed group that controls large parts of Iraq and Syria, said the group has accepted a pledge of allegiance from Boko Haram.

Chad, Cameroon, Niger, and Nigeria formed a military alliance in February to combat the group. The African Union endorsed the plan to set up a regional force in late January, and is pushing for a United Nations Security Council mandate for the operation.

Earlier this month, Chad and Niger launched a joint army operation against Boko Haram in Nigeria, intensifying the regional push to try to defeat the group that has killed thousands in a six-year insurgency.

Boko Haram has expanded cross-border raids in recent months, spurring Nigeria's neighbors to retaliate, although cooperation between them and the government in Abuja has been limited and at times strained.

With wire services. Nick Schifrin contributed to this report from Maiduguri, Nigeria.

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