Dozens of people were killed in fierce fighting between Nigeria’s military and insurgents after troops raided an hideout in the northeast, a Nigerian government source told reporters yesterday.
Gun battles broke out in the remote fishing village of Baga on Friday, forcing residents to flee the town as insurgents reportedly fired rocket-propelled grenades and soldiers spray machinegun fire into neighborhoods filled with civilians.
The village, which serves as a small trading center on the shores of Lake Chad, lies in Borno State, the home base of Islamist group Boko Haram, which is blamed for carrying out scores of attacks across Nigeria since 2009. The Baga assault is a significant escalation in the long-running insurgency due to the use of heavy weapons.
Authorities had found and buried at least 185 bodies as of Sunday afternoon, Baga government official Lawan Kole said.
However,a state government official who refused to be named said the fighting had only “killed dozens of people” and Borno State military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Sagir Musa told journalists that reports of about 180 people dying were “extensively inflated.”
“On my honor as an officer, nothing like that happened,” Musa said.
Heavy damage was visible throughout the village, including signs that a massive fire had razed several homes and a market, said an official who toured the area on Sunday with Borno Governor Kashim Shettima.
The official, who also requested anonymity, said locals reported deaths among the insurgents, soldiers and civilians. Officials could not offer a breakdown of the casualties. Many of the bodies were burned beyond recognition, residents said.
The Red Cross and the National Emergency Management Agency said their staff had not yet been to the area, but both planned to dispatch teams to the village.
Baga is more than 150km from the state capital, Maiduguri, which. Boko Haram has used as a base for its insurgency. Scores of militants have reportedly fled to more remote corners of the state following a crackdown by security forces.
Locals told the governor’s delegation that the clashes started when troops surrounded a mosque that was allegedly sheltering Boko Haram insurgents. A shootout ensued and there were reports from residents of the Islamists using heavy weapons including rocket-propelled grenades, but the nature of the fighting could not be confirmed.
Nigerian Brigadier General Austin Edokpaye said extremists used civilians as human shields during the fighting — implying that soldiers opened fire in neighborhoods 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, residents who spoke to a journalist who accompanied the state officials said soldiers purposefully set the fires during the attack.
Nigerian security forces have a history of minimizing casualty figures in the conflict with Boko Haram in a bid to downplay the Islamists’ capacity. However, resentment of the military is high in some communities and locals have in the past have also inflated death tolls.
On Sunday, fearful residents of the town had begun packing to leave 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.”