A gruesome attack by Boko Haram Islamists disguised in military uniforms and armed with heavy weapons in Nigeria’s northeast has killed at least 87 people, a state government official said on Thursday.
The insurgents also burnt scores of homes and buildings in the assault late on Tuesday, according to locals, who reported seeing corpses littering the roadside. Boko Haram fighters set up checkpoints in the Benisheik area and gunned down motorists and travelers who tried to flee, according to multiple witness accounts.
“Eighty-seven bodies were recovered in the bush and our people are still searching for more,” Saidu Yakubu of the Environmental Protection Agency in northeastern Borno state told journalists who accompanied Borno Governor Kashim Shettima to the scene of the massacre.
Details of the attack in the town, which has previously been targeted by Boko Haram, first emerged on Wednesday.
“They came in droves, driving about 20 pickup trucks,” said a security source stationed in the town who requested anonymity.
He said the insurgents were armed with “anti-aircraft guns,” in the latest indication that Boko Haram has bolstered its arsenal in recent months.
Mallam Isa Manu, a motorist who escaped unhurt, told journalists in the Borno state capital of Maiduguri on Wednesday that the Islamists wore “military uniforms,” a tactic the insurgents have used previously.
According to army General Mohammed Yusuf, who also briefed the governor, troops ran out of ammunition while combating the assault.
Shettima described the attack as “barbaric and un-Islamic,” and pledged financial aid to victims.
The motivation behind the attack was not immediately clear, but Boko Haram members have repeatedly carried out revenge attacks against residents over the emergence of vigilante groups that have formed to assist the military.
Residents said the attackers singled out people from Borno, while letting people from other regions pass through checkpoints.
Benishiek was also the scene of deadly clashes on Sept. 8 between suspected Boko Haram gunmen and vigilantes.
The insurgents say they are fighting to create an Islamic state in Nigeria’s mainly Muslim north, but their aims have repeatedly shifted and much of their violence has targeted defenseless civilians. In the middle of May, Nigeria declared a state of emergency across the northeast, Boko Haram’s stronghold, and launched a sweeping offensive aimed at crushing the group’s four-year insurgency. While the military has claimed major successes in the campaign, a spate of recent violence indicates that the group’s capacity has not been weakened.
The phone network in Borno has been switched off since the emergency measures were imposed, a move the military said was aimed at blocking the Islamists from coordinating attacks. However, some have suggested it has prevented civilians from sounding the alarm during attacks.
The insurgency is estimated to have killed at least 3,600 people since 2009, including deaths caused by the security services, but the current toll is likely much higher.