N’DJAMENA - Tens of thousands of people rallied in the capital of Chad on Saturday in support of the authorities’ decision to send troops to fight Nigeria’s Boko Haram militants.

Prime Minister Kalzeube Pahimi Deubet led the demonstrators as they marched from city hall in the capital N’Djamena to the Place de Nation square, carrying Chadian flags and chanting in French and Arabic: ‘Kick the forces of evil out of our territory.’ A large banner read: ‘We support our army. The people of Chad support their Cameroonian and Nigerian brothers in the fight against terrorism.’

‘Today’s march is a strong signal, a warning to Boko Haram and above all a march for peace to protect our vital interests, to protect our economy, to protect Chad’s security,’ Deubet said. ‘The country is seriously threatened by Boko Haram,’ said Ouchar Tourguidi, head of the main party in parliament, calling the rally ‘important for boosting morale of our troops who are going to the front.’

Dozens of Chadian tanks headed out of the capital Friday south towards Cameroon after Chad’s parliament approved the deployment. Chad’s plunge into the war against Boko Haram came after a large-scale attack by the militants in Baga, the Nigerian town on the shores of Lake Chad were as many as 2,000 people were massacred by the militants in a raid on January 7 described by US Secretary of State John Kerry as a ‘crime against humanity’. Cameroon’s President Paul Biya had announced Thursday that his Chadian counterpart Idriss Deby had agreed to send ‘a substantial contingent’ of troops to help Cameroonian armed forces, who have faced repeated attacks from Boko Haram. The Russian ambassador to the country also pledged to supply Cameroon with more modern weapons to combat the Islamist insurgents.

Moreover, Cameroon, Chad and Niger have launched a regional bid to combat the Boko Haram Islamists, as their attacks spread beyond Nigeria and concern mounts over the Nigerians’ failure to regain control. The three neighbours have opted for a joint military response to the cross-border threat from Boko Haram fighters and have made veiled criticisms of Nigeria, whose armed forces appear no match for the Islamist group that emerged in 2009.

Brutal raids, massacres, suicide bomb attacks and kidnappings by Boko Haram have claimed at least 13,000 lives and driven an estimated 1.5 million people from their homes, mainly in arid northeast Nigeria. Officially, all four states, whose borders converge in remote territory at Lake Chad, formed a military alliance that was due to take shape last November to battle Boko Haram.

But building a combined Lake Chad force seems to have dropped off the agenda. Now the urgency of the situation is such that Nigeria’s partners appear to have finally lost patience and decided to act. Cameroon in particular has been critical of what it sees as the Nigerian authorities’ passivity in the face of Boko Haram. On Friday, after Chad’s parliament voted to send armed forces to Cameroon and Nigeria to help fight the Islamists, Chadian army vehicles headed south out of the capital N’Djamena.

The move comes after the Islamists seized Baga town on the Nigerian shore of Lake Chad early this month in an offensive that ‘could be Boko Haram’s deadliest act’, according to Daniel Eyre, Nigeria researcher for Amnesty International. Satellite pictures released by Amnesty and Human Rights Watch last week showed widespread destruction with around 3,700 buildings in Baga and nearby Doron Baga damaged or destroyed.

Eyre said as many as 2,000 civilians may have been massacred, but Nigeria’s army objected to the ‘sensational’ claims and said that the death toll in Baga was about 150. The Islamists detained ‘over 500 women and hundreds of children’ in a school, one woman who escaped the area told AFP, adding that she had seen ‘decomposing bodies scattered all over’.

US Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday joined rights monitors in blaming Boko Haram for ‘a crime against humanity’ on the basis of evidence from the towns in northern Nigeria.

Nigeria’s army had planned to use the isolated settlement of Baga as one of its key bases to work with a regional force. However, the other countries are opposed to any major deployment inside a bastion of Boko Haram, which is against Western education and wants to establish an Islamist caliphate. ‘The most worrying situation for us today is Nigeria, it’s the situation of Boko Haram,’ Niger’s Defence Minister Karidjo Mahamadou said after the fall of Baga. ‘Since November, we have no longer been at that post (Baga). We explained to the Nigerians that we could not stay since we did not wish to put the lives of our soldiers in danger,’ Mahamadou said.