Nigerian forces fought what they said was a gunbattle with Islamist insurgents in the capital, Abuja, on Friday, but statements from witnesses and the US embassy suggested those involved were squatters.
Nigeria’s main intelligence agency said Boko Haram fighters opened fire in the capital on security agents who were searching for a weapons cache in a building under construction.
If confirmed, it would be the first violence linked to the Islamist group to hit the Nigerian capital in months.
However, a security message from the US embassy about what appeared to be the same incident suggested those involved may in fact have been squatters.
The embassy, naming the neighborhood where the incident occurred, warned of “the potential for civil disturbances in and around the Apo area, Wumba District, Abuja, throughout tonight and over the weekend.”
It added that “a violent incident in the early hours of Sept. 20 involving squatters in Apo may be the trigger for such disturbances.”
A US embassy spokeswoman declined further comment and Nigerian intelligence agency spokeswoman Marilyn Ogar did not answer calls.
Several witnesses injured in the shootout told reporters in an Abuja hospital that eight people were killed, describing the victims as unarmed squatters.
A man who claimed to be at the building at the time of the incident and whose name was withheld for his protection said the owner had come on Wednesday and told them they had a week to leave.
He said the dozens of people living in the house were unarmed and were not Boko Haram members.
“They give us one week to leave the house, but two days later they come as we sleep,” the man said from his hospital bed, where he was being treated for what appeared to be gunshot wounds to his legs. “We are not staying in the house free. We pay to the guard 200 naira (US$1.25) per week.”
Earlier, Ogar said that security agents began “digging for arms” shortly after midnight, based on a tipoff from arrested insurgents.
They then “came under heavy gunfire attack by ... Boko Haram elements within the area, which prompted immediate response from the security team,” she said in a statement.
Several people were injured in the shootout and 12 were later arrested, according to Ogar.
Nigerian security forces have been accused of major abuses, including killing civilians and arbitrary arrests, though it has consistently denied the allegations.
The incident came as the military sent troops to a town in the country’s remote northeast where the Islamists killed at least 87 people earlier in the week.