KADUNA, Nigeria The faction of the Islamist militant group Boko Haram led by Abubakar Shekau released a video on Tuesday denying that fighters are dying of hunger in its northeast Nigerian forest base.
Nigeria's military last week said it was "ransacking" territory it said it had recaptured from Boko Haram in the hunt for Shekau, who leads one of two main branches of the jihadist group. It also said he might be hiding in the Sambisa forest.
Large parts of northeast Nigeria, particularly in Borno state, remain under threat from Boko Haram as suicide bombings and gun attacks have increased in the region since the end of the rainy season late last year.
"There is no food that we lack in this forest of Sambisa. It is not true that we have run out of food supply and that we are being killed by hunger," said an unidentified man with a rifle, flanked by others carrying guns, in the five-minute video.
Nigeria's army said in December that it had pushed Boko Haram out of the Sambisa forest, a vast former colonial game reserve that was the group's stronghold, in an operation to reclaim territory lost to the Islamist insurgency since 2009.
Boko Haram split last year, with one faction led by Shekau operating from the forest and the other, allied to Islamic State and led by Abu Musab al-Barnawi, based in the Lake Chad region.
"We urge all members to be one hundred percent loyal to him [Shekau]," said the man in the video. "It is not true that you killed Shekau," he said, referring to previous claims by the Nigerian military that he had been fatally wounded.
Shekau did not appear in the video, which was circulated on social media on Tuesday.
Boko Haram has killed more than 15,000 people and forced more than two million to flee their homes during its insurgency aimed at creating an Islamic state governed by a strict interpretation of sharia law in Africa's most populous nation.
(Reporting by Garba Muhammad; Writing by Alexis Akwagyiram; Editing by Andrew Bolton)