MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (AP) — Suspected Islamic militants struck the northern city of Maiduguri Friday morning, attacking the main military barracks and causing panicked residents to flee.
Children walking to school when the shooting erupted cried in fear and confusion.
Soldiers had a shootout with the insurgents near the main Giwa Military Barracks. It appeared the extremists’ mission is to hit the military in their stronghold. The barracks are the headquarters of a 10-month-old security forces offensive to halt the Islamic uprising in northeast Nigeria using draconian state of emergency powers.
Maiduguri is the birthplace of the Boko Haram terrorist network that is blamed for the deaths of thousands of Muslims and Christians in a 4-year-old uprising aimed at transforming Nigeria into an Islamic state under strict Shariah law. Nigeria’s population of 170 million, the biggest in Africa, is comprised of almost equal numbers of Christians living mainly in the south and Muslims in the north.
The military cut cell phone service Wednesday in Maiduguri, as part of a renewed offensive, so there was no way to contact officials.
It was the third attack in recent months in Maiduguri, capital of Borno state: Twin car bombs exploded in a bustling marketplace in Maiduguri on March 2, killing more than 50 people. A Jan. 14 bomb killed 40 residents. A bold assault Dec. 5 on the air force base and a military barracks on the city outskirts killed an unknown number of security forces and extremists who destroyed five aircraft on the runway.
The uprising and the fallout from an often brutal military response has forced about half a million people from their homes since 2012 – some 470,000 people displaced in the country and at least 30,000 across borders in Chad, Niger and Cameroon, according to the UN refugee agency.
“The horrific attacks by Boko Haram are having a devastating impact on northern Nigerians,” Human Rights Watch said in a report Friday calling for the government to help refugees. The New York-based advocacy group put the death toll at more than 700 killed this year in attacks on more than 40 villages.
Friday’s attack is a major blow to the military’s claims of successes in air raids and ground assaults on forest hideouts and mountain caves that they said have killed scores of fighters and had others on the run.
A series of military press releases have been issued in the past two weeks following unprecedented criticism of the failure to halt ever-deadlier attacks, including assaults in which soldiers are reported to have abandoned checkpoints and left civilians at the mercy of the militants.
President Goodluck Jonathan has responded by firing his entire military command last month and appointing a new defense minister last week. This comes in the run-up to February 2015 elections that will be the most hotly contested since decades of military dictatorship ended in 1999.
A statement Thursday from the security forces’ Joint Security Information Committee “noted with great concern the orchestrated attack on the morale of the Nigerian security forces engaged in the fight against terrorism by a section of the political elite.” It accused them of encouraging a mutiny.
On Tuesday, a Defense Ministry statement said captured extremists had confessed their struggle was in jeopardy with fighters starving and under constant aerial bombardment. It claimed that some had confessed their clerics “declared that the operation of the sect had come to an end as the mission could no longer be sustained.”
Such claims have been dismissed by politicians. House of Assembly speaker Aminu Waziri Tambuwal said Tuesday the country has run out of excuses for its inability to defend citizens against “an orgy of deaths, destruction and waste.” He spoke at a special session in memory of 59 high school students gunned down or burned to death in a locked dormitory in a February attack in neighboring Yobe state. Witnesses reported that soldiers had abandoned a checkpoint on the road to the school just hours before the attackers struck.
Borno Gov. Kashim Shettima has asked if there is collusion between some high-ranking military officers and the militants. Several lower ranks were arrested last year on charges of feeding information and otherwise aiding the extremists. They were to be tried by courts-martial but their fate is unknown.
Faul reported from Lagos, Nigeria.