An attack by suspected Islamic sect members on a town guarded by a vigilante group in northeast Nigeria on Sunday killed at least 18 people and injured 17, residents and a government official said.
The attack in Benisheik, 72km west of Maiduguri, the birthplace of the Boko Haram militant group, took place days after the Nigerian military said it killed at least 50 insurgents in an area to the north.
Zannah Fannami, a 27-year-old operative with the Civilian Joint Task Force vigilante group, said its members were attacked while awaiting Boko Haram’s approach on the town.
“We heard that they would be coming since Friday and had been keeping vigil all nights,” he said from the University of Maiduguri hospital, while being treated for a bullet wound on his right thigh.
Late on Saturday night, “when we least expected it, we heard a thunderous sound like that of a bomb coming from the direction of a soldiers’ post. Then we decided to advance toward the sound and the Boko Haram gunmen, carrying sophisticated arms, opened fire on us, killing 12 of our members.”
He said that the vigilante group, which was formed to fight the Boko Haram network, was able to kill five of the Islamic sect members and take possession of four AK-47 rifles.
Another injured civilian operative, 32-year-old Muhammed Abuwar, said: “The military had agreed to watch and lay in ambush with us against the Boko Haram, but when the attackers came, none of them came over to assist us. Most of the Boko Haram shooters were shooting from atop trees.”
The Nigerian military has agreed to support any missions by the civilian task force until its newest division formed to fight Boko Haram becomes fully functional.
The spokesman for the seventh division, Lieutenant Colonel Sagir Musa, said that brigade troops were sent to the area and “the attack was repelled.”
Troops are still searching for fleeing insurgents, he added.
“Information available to Seventh Division of the Nigeria army revealed that at about 12:30am suspected members of Boko Haram terrorists deceptively attacked the youth vigilantes at Benisheik,” he said.
The spokesman confirmed that five Boko Haram members were killed, but put the vigilante death toll at six.
The road leading toward Maiduguri was barricaded until the road was cleared, he said, adding: “Normalcy has been returned to the area.”
A top Borno state government labor adviser, Garba Ngamdu, who also hails from Benisheik, said one of vigilante members had died in the hospital as doctors tried to remove bullets from his body.
He also confirmed the death of the five Boko Haram members at the hands of vigilante members with machetes and said their dead bodies still lay on the outskirts of the town.
Benisheik is a scanty linear settlement of staple crop farmers of not more than 1,000 houses, mostly made of mud.
There has been a rash of attacks by suspected sect members in northeast Nigeria recently, after young vigilantes formed the Civilian Joint Task Force in June, taking over the search for the insurgents.
The vigilante force claims credit for thousands of arrests in Maiduguri and many killings.