By Joe Hemba
DAMATURU/MAIDUGURI, Nigeria, Sept 3 (Reuters) - Boko Haram militants have driven more than 26,000 people from the northeastern town of Bama amid fierce fighting, witnesses and security sources said on Wednesday, as the Islamists focus more on taking and holding territory.
The government of Borno state, where Bama is located, said it still controlled the town. Local sources had earlier said the Boko Haram, which began its assault on Monday, had won control of much of Bama by Tuesday.
As that fighting wore on, news came that the insurgency scored another victory on Tuesday by taking the smaller town of Bara, to the southwest roughly halfway between Maiduguri and the national capital Abuja, without firing a shot.
Boko Haram's attacks appear to have shifted focus in recent weeks away from creating mayhem to taking ground and holding it, a strategy analysts say could be inspired by the Islamic State's example of declaring a caliphate in Syria and Iraq.
Last month, the insurgents captured the remote farming town of Gwoza, along the Cameroon border, during heavy fighting. Their leader Abubakar Shekau declared in a video that the town was now "Muslim territory".
The National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) in Borno state said on Wednesday that 26,391 displaced had so far been registered from the town. "The number is growing by the hour," its spokesman Abdulkadir Ibrahim said.
FEARS FOR MAIDUGURI
The Borno state government and local vigilante groups said Bama remained under government control, a message confirmed by military spokesman Major General Chris Olukolade in Abuja.
Capturing Bama would bring the rebels closer to the Borno state capital Maiduguri, 70 km to the northwest, which is the birthplace of the Boko Haram movement.
Fears that Maiduguri could be the next target led the government to extend an overnight curfew there. It now runs from 7 p.m. (1800 GMT) until 6 a.m., after previously staring only at 10 p.m.
"The attack on Bama town ... was very unfortunate, but I want to reassure our people that government is on top of the situation," Borno state deputy governor Zanna Mustapha said in a statement. "Our security forces are engaging the insurgents in a fierce battle."
Boko Haram, a Sunni jihadist movement whose name means "western education is forbidden", has killed thousands since launching an uprising in 2009 to establish an Islamic state in religiously mixed Nigeria. They are by far the main security threat to Africa's biggest economy.
Nobody was harmed when they took the town of Bara on Tuesday, said a trader who fled when they came. While some northeastern towns have army protection, Bara was unguarded.
"They went preaching in the whole town, asking people to leave government work and join them to do the work of Allah," said Musa Abdullahi, who left Bara for Yobe state west of Borno.
"People were afraid, but they said that they did not come to kill anybody but to preach," he said.
More than 700,000 people have been displaced externally and internally by the conflict, the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR says.
Ministers from Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria met in the Nigerian capital on Wednesday to discuss the Boko Haram menace. They "called for greater cooperation of the international community" in fighting the "transfer of arms and ammunitions" to Boko Haram, a statement said. (Additional reporting by Lanre Ola in Maiduguri; Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Tom Heneghan)