AFP – Boko Haram militants launched a daring raid on the military in Maiduguri overnight, prompting a round-the-clock curfew that shut airspace and cut off roads, the army, state government and eyewitnesses said.
Local residents said hundreds of heavily armed Islamist gunmen
besieged an air force and army base, destroying aircraft, razing buildings and setting shops and petrol stations ablaze in a deadly rampage.
The attack, which left 24 militants dead and wounded two service personnel, according to the military, comes after claims the banned group had been successfully pushed out of urban centres into more remote, rural areas of Borno state.
Boko Haram has previously launched massive, coordinated attacks on the security services in Borno but the reported scale of the latest strike could make it one of the biggest against the military in Maiduguri in many months.
“I saw two air force helicopters burnt while in the whole of the 79 Composite Group (of the Nigerian Air Force) few buildings are still standing. Most of the structures have been attacked and destroyed,” said one man, who lives nearby, of Monday’s attacks.
“At the 33 Artillery (battalion of the Nigerian Army), the terrorists have destroyed the barracks and took away an armoured (personnel) carrier but left it along the highway.
“We heard women and children in the barracks crying and wailing. At the gate, I saw some vehicles destroyed and the checkpoint there in shreds,” said the man, a local government official, who asked to remain anonymous.
“Three decommissioned military aircrafts as well as two helicopters were incapacitated in the course of the attack,” Brigadier-General Chris Olukolade, director of defence information, said in an emailed statement.
“Two Air Force personnel were also wounded while 24 insurgents died during the exchange of fire.”
But one man in Maiduguri told Borno’s Governor Kashim Shettima, who toured the affected area, that two of his children were killed. One owned a pharmacy while the other was involved in a civilian vigilante group, the man said.
The local government official said more civilians could have lost their lives.
“Frankly speaking, if the insurgents had wanted, they could have killed all of us… because they came in large numbers… some with explosives, some with rocket-propelled grenades and some with AK-47 rifles,” he said.
The Nigerian Army’s spokesman in Maiduguri, Colonel Muhammed Dole, said the Boko Haram fighters had been “successfully repelled” and had suffered “serious casualties”, without specifying numbers.
The areas around the airport were “calm and under control”, Dole added, saying ground troops and the air force were pursuing the attackers.
Nigeria’s government imposed a state of emergency in Borno and two other northeast states in May, cutting phone links in a move designed to block militants from coordinating attacks.
Details of the ongoing conflict have as a result been difficult to verify.
Empty streets, indefinite curfew
The strike began around 3:00 am (0200 GMT) and included bomb and gun attacks, said an AFP correspondent in the city, where Boko Haram was founded more than 10 years ago.
“They entered Maiduguri from the bush, chanting ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is great),” said one Nigerian intelligence officer.
Ambulances were seen moving out of the air force base and the adjoining neighbourhood, according to the correspondent. Roads in the city were deserted and the sound of sirens from military vehicles could be heard, he added.
The insurgents also ambushed military checkpoints on the outskirts of the city, while shops and petrol stations were set on fire, local residents said.
State government secretary Baba Ahmed Jidda called for calm, saying only emergency service vehicles were allowed to move during the curfew, which would be lifted “as soon as the situation improves”.
Monday’s attacks came after suspected Boko Haram militants killed 24 people in two separate strikes in Borno state last week and following a military pledge to tighten security in border regions due to fears of Christmas and New Year attacks.
Boko Haram, whose name translates from the Hausa language of northern Nigeria as “Western education is sin”, wants to impose a strict form of Islamic law or sharia in the region and has been blamed for thousands of deaths since 2009.