France ready to help Nigeria against Boko Haram: Hollande
President Francois Hollande on Thursday said France stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Nigeria in its battle against Boko Haram, vowing to support its fight against Islamist militancy as it had done in Mali.
Hours before Hollande's arrival in Abuja, hundreds of suspected militant fighters besieged a town in northeastern Adamawa state, destroying homes and businesses with heavy weaponry and explosives.
At least two people were killed in the attack late Wednesday, which destroyed four banks, hundreds of shops, a police station and several government buildings.
The attack came after 43 people, mostly students, were killed in a night-time raid by suspected insurgents at a secondary school in Yobe state on Tuesday.
Hollande, guest of honour for celebrations to mark 100 years since Nigeria's unification, expressed his condolences, calling the Yobe attack "brutal" and "unjustified".
"Nigeria is today confronted with the terrorism of Boko Haram," he told delegates at a security conference attended by dozens of African heads of state and European Union President Jose Manuel Barroso.
"I assure you that your struggle is also our struggle. We will always stand ready not only to provide our political support but our help every time you need it, because the struggle against terrorism is also the struggle for democracy."
- Violence a 'scourge' -
Hollande is on a two-day visit to Nigeria and had been expected to hold talks on trade and investment with his Nigerian counterpart Goodluck Jonathan.
Nigeria is Africa's biggest oil producer and is tipped to become the continent's largest economy in the coming months.
But with a raging insurgency in Nigeria's northeast, France's military action against Islamist fighters in Mali last year and peace-keeping in the conflict-torn Central African Republic, security has been pushed to the fore.
Hollande's office announced separately that he would travel to the Central African capital Bangui on Friday to meet French troops, his counterpart Catherine Samba-Panza and religious authorities in the country, beset by months of violence between the Christian majority and Muslim minority.
Religious violence and insecurity such as drug running, human trafficking and maritime piracy were a "scourge" that risked hindering Africa's promising future development, he said.
Nigeria -- a former British colony whose northern and southern protectorates were formally merged on January 1, 1914 -- is not traditionally in France's sphere of influence.
But it is surrounded by French-speaking countries, notably its former colonies Chad, Niger and Cameroon, which have been flooded with people from Nigeria's northeast escaping violence.
The United Nations said earlier this month that as of the end of January, nearly 12,500 Nigerians had fled east to Cameroon and 8,000 north to Niger because of the continued violence.
Boko Haram fighters are also suspected of having bases in neighbouring countries, crossing the porous borders to launch attacks before retreating.
- Parallels with Mali -
Hollande sent French troops to Mali in January 2013 to fight Islamist militants who had seized the northern half of the country, and still has troops trying to stem the bloodshed in the Central African Republic.
French officials have drawn comparisons with the fight against Boko Haram and Mali, where some of the militants are said to have linked up with other Al-Qaeda-inspired groups.
Nigeria's government maintains that it is winning the war against Boko Haram, despite the relentless wave of attacks and mounting death toll, but has indicated that French support would be welcome.
Information minister Labaran Maku said on Tuesday that Nigeria needed cooperation from both France and French-speaking west Africa "before it becomes a major problem" for everyone.
"It will devastate French interests if we allow this terror to go on," the minister told AIT television.
Hollande won plaudits internationally and broad support at home for sending troops into Mali.
But he has not enjoyed the same domestic support for sending troops to keep order in the troubled Central African Republic, particularly since other Western powers are reluctant to match France's commitments.
Separately, he announced a doubling of French overseas aid to Africa in the next five years.
© 2014 AFP