MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (AP) — Coordinated attacks by Islamic extremists armed with heavy machine guns killed at least 42 people in northeast Nigeria, authorities said Tuesday, the latest in a string of increasingly bloody attacks threatening peace in Africa’s most populous nation.
The attack struck multiple locations in the hard-hit town of Bama in Nigeria’s Borno state, where shootings and bombings have continued unstopped since an insurgency began there in 2010. Fighters raided a federal prison during their assault as well, freeing 105 inmates in another mass prison break to hit the country, officials said.
What exactly happened in the attack remains unclear, though military spokesman Lt. Col. Sagir Musa said some 200 fighters in buses and pickup trucks mounted with machine guns attacked the barracks of the 202 Battalion of Nigeria’s beleaguered army. Musa said two soldiers died in the attack, while some 10 insurgents died. However, the military routinely downplays their casualties in such assaults.
“They came in army uniform pretending to be soldiers but were able to detect them,” Musa said.
The attackers struck the federal prison, killing 14 guards there, Musa said. They also attacked and razed a police station, a police barracks, a magistrate’s court and local government offices, the lieutenant colonel said.
At least 22 police officers, three children and a woman were killed in those attacks, said Bama police commander Sagir Abubakar. He said officers killed three insurgents in the fighting.
Calls rang unanswered or couldn’t connect Tuesday night to those living in Bama, a town 65 kilometers (40 miles) southeast of Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state.
Repeated attacks by Islamic extremists have seen mobile phone towers bombed and burned to the ground there, making communication even more difficult for security officials and civilians as well in the region. At least 17 people died in an attack in Bama in late April alone.
Much of the violence has been blamed on the extremist network known as Boko Haram, which means “Western education is sacrilege” in the Hausa language of Nigeria’s north. That group has said it wants its imprisoned members freed and Nigeria to adopt strict Shariah law across the multiethnic nation of more than 160 million people.
While President Goodluck Jonathan has started a committee to look at the idea of offering an amnesty deal to extremist fighters, Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, has dismissed the idea in messages.
The Islamic insurgency in Nigeria grew out of a 2009 riot led by Boko Haram members in Maiduguri that ended in a military and police crackdown that killed some 700 people. The group’s leader died in police custody in an apparent execution. From 2010 on, Islamic extremists have engaged in hit-and-run shootings and suicide bombings, attacks that have killed more than 1,500 people, according to an Associated Press count.
Despite the deployment of more soldiers and police to northern Nigeria, the nation’s weak central government has been unable to stop the killings. Meanwhile, violent atrocities committed by security forces against the local civilian population only fuels rage in the region.
In late April, at least 187 people were killed in fighting between Islamic extremists and the military in Baga, another city in Borno state that sits along the banks of Lake Chad. Witnesses say soldiers angry about the death of a military officer set fire to homes there and killed civilians.
Human Rights Watch recently said an analysis of satellite imagery before and after the attack led them to believe the violence destroyed some 2,275 buildings and severely damaged another 125.
Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell in Lagos, Nigeria, contributed to this report.