At least 185 people killed during fighting between Boko Haram group and troops centred on fishing community in north.
April 21,2013 (Aljazeera)Fighting between Nigeria’s military and the armed group Boko Haram has left at least 185 people dead in a fishing community in the nation’s far northeast, officials said on Sunday.
The fighting in Baga began on Friday and lasted for hours, sending people fleeing into the arid scrublands surrounding the community on Lake Chad, according to the AP news agency.
By Sunday, when government officials finally felt safe enough to see the destruction, homes, businesses and vehicles were burned throughout the area.
The assault marks a significant escalation in a long-running insurgency in the predominantly Muslim north, where Boko Haram has mounted a coordinated assault on soldiers using military-grade weaponry.
Boko Haram, which means “Western education is forbidden” in the Hausa language of Nigeria’s north, has said it wants its imprisoned members freed and Nigeria to adopt strict Islamic law.
Authorities had found and buried at least 185 bodies as of Sunday afternoon, said Lawan Kole, a local government official in Baga. Officials could not offer a breakdown of civilian casualties versus those of soldiers and fighters.
Many of the bodies had been burned beyond recognition in fires that razed whole sections of the town, residents said.
Brigadier General Austin Edokpaye said the Boko Haram fighters used heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades in the assault, which began after soldiers surrounded a mosque they believed housed members of the group.
Edokpaye said they used civilians as human shields during the fighting, implying that soldiers opened fire in neighbourhoods where they knew civilians lived.
“When we reinforced and returned to the scene the terrorists came out with heavy firepower, including [rocket-propelled grenades], which usually has a conflagration effect,” the general said.
However, local residents who spoke to a journalist who accompanied the state officials said soldiers purposefully set the fires during the attack.
Violence by security forces in the northeast targeting civilians has been widely documented by journalists and human rights activists.
A similar raid in Maiduguri, Borno state’s capital, in October saw soldiers kill at least 30 civilians and set fires across a neighborhood.
On Sunday afternoon, the burned bodies of cattle and goats still filled the streets in Baga. Bullet holes marred burned buildings. Fearful residents of the town had begun packing to leave with their remaining family members before nightfall.
“Everyone has been in the bush since Friday night; we started returning back to town because the governor came to town today,” grocer Bashir Isa said.
“To get food to eat in the town now is a problem because even the markets are burnt. We are still picking corpses of women and children in the bush and creeks.”
The insurgency in Nigeria grew out of a 2009 riot led by Boko Haram members in Maiduguri, which ended in a military and police crackdown that killed around 700 people. The group’s leader died in police custody in an apparent execution.
Shootings, suicide bombings and other attacks carried out by the group have killed at least 1,548 people before Friday’s attack, according to an AP tally.
Fighters suspected to belong to Boko Haram also have been seen in northern Mali, where heavily armed rebels took power last year in the weeks following a military coup.
Analysts say Boko Haram may get its hands on weapons smuggled out of Libya following its recent civil war.
Despite the deployment of more soldiers and police to northern Nigeria, the nation’s weak central government has been unable to stop the killings.