MAIDUGURI (Reuters) - Nigeria relaxed a curfew on Monday in parts of the northeast where its troops are mounting their biggest offensive yet against militants from the Islamist group Boko Haram.
The Nigerian military has sent thousands of extra troops to try to dislodge well-armed Boko Haram fighters from territory they control in remote semi-deserts around Lake Chad, along the borders with Cameroon, Chad and Niger.
A 24-hour curfew had been imposed since Saturday over large parts of the city of Maiduguri and other parts of Borno state, at the heart of the Boko Haram insurgency. The curfew had raised fears of a humanitarian crisis if food supplies were unable to get through.
But Lieutenant Colonel Sagir Musa, a spokesman for Nigerian forces in Borno, said the curfew had been relaxed and would start at 6 p.m. and end at 7 a.m.. He declined to give further details.
Traffic remained at a trickle in Maiduguri, as many frightened residents remained in their homes.
President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency on Tuesday in the states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa, sending thousands of extra troops to the region. The operation has targeted areas of Africa's top energy producer where Boko Haram has established bases and weapons dumps. War planes were used to destroy some bases in remote rural areas on Friday.
The sect is fighting to carve out an Islamist state in Nigeria, a country of 170 million people where around half are Christians and the other half Muslims. Thousands have been killed since Boko Haram launched its uprising in 2009.
Jonathan offered an amnesty on Sunday to any Boko Haram militants who lay down their weapons and surrender, although analysts say the state of emergency will further complicate efforts to resolve the conflict through dialogue.
He has won support for taking decisive action, although many doubt whether Boko Haram, adept at going into hiding under pressure then resurfacing, can be defeated militarily.
The brigade commander for Adamawa state Brigadier General Fatai Oladipo Ali addressed 200 troops that had arrived from Lagos, part of an expected extra 1,000 sent to the state.
"There will be no hiding place for terrorists. The insurgents signed their own death warrants by taking up arms against the Nigerian state," he told the troops on Monday.
The United States, European Union and rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are concerned the state of emergency will enable Nigeria's military to commit abuses against civilians.
Ali warned soldiers against "harassing innocent people."
The U.N. emergency relief agency (OCHA) and the Niger's Red Cross said in a report that around 1,500 people had fled across the border into Niger in the past two weeks, but it had not yet been established what their nationalities were.
A total of 2,000 were expected.
"Humanitarian agencies fear an increase in the numbers coming into Niger," it said, adding they were monitoring the situation. The region also borders Chad and Cameroon.
(Reporting by Joe Brock; Additional reporting by Imma Ande in Yola and Abdoulaye Massalatchi in Niamey; Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Jon Hemming)