Christmas cheer returns to Nigeria's Boko Haram heartland


MAIDUGURI, Nigeria Dec 22 (Reuters) - Night markets, carol singers and even Santa Claus hats have returned to northeast Nigeria's Maiduguri, in a sign that the threat from jihadist group Boko Haram has ebbed.

Stalls display vegetables, fruit and fish and people chat over cups of tea. It is a far cry from three years ago, when the traditional food markets were closed by curfews imposed after Boko Haram gunmen mounted attacks on them.

More than 15,000 people have been killed and over two million forced to flee their homes by the Islamist militant group's seven-year-old insurgency, aimed at creating a caliphate under sharia law.

Maiduguri, capital of Borno state, was the city hardest hit. But Boko Haram has been forced to retreat in recent months to its stronghold in the Sambisa forest by Nigeria's army and troops from neighboring countries.

The curfew has been pushed back to 10 p.m., from 6 p.m., enabling night markets to remain open until 9 p.m.

"We have returned home now that peace and security has been restored to continue the business," said Ahmed Dangaskiye, whose motorcycle taxi firm has been boosted by the return of late trading at Gomari market in a southwestern district.

See earlier: Kidnapped girls returned to their families:

Abdul Jabar, a tea seller pouring hot drinks for clusters of men in Custom market, in the southeast of the city, said that until a few months ago, people did not leave home at night.

"Even by 5 p.m. nobody can come to this area, but now, thank God, peace has come," he said.

Christmas carol singers, some wearing Santa Claus hats, backed by congregations of at least 50 gather to sing hymns in the predominantly Muslim city.

Boko Haram has carried out several deadly attacks on churches in the past. The group still stages suicide bombings in the northeast and in neighboring Niger and Cameroon.

In early December two schoolgirl suicide bombers killed 56 people at a daytime market in Madagali, 150 km (90 miles) from Maiduguri.

A pharmacist in Gomari market was aware of the need to remain vigilant. "We have to search them outside before coming here in case of any suicide bomber," he said.

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