KANO, Nigeria (AFP) – Heavy fighting between Nigerian troops and suspected Islamist insurgents has killed 187 people and injured 77 others, with massive blazes that raged after the clashes leaving nearly half the town destroyed, the Red Cross said Monday.
The bloodshed in the remote northeastern town of Baga likely marks the single deadliest event in the insurgency being waged by Boko Haram, the radical Islamist group blamed for scores of attacks in northern and central Nigeria since 2009.
Conflicting reports have emerged of the fighting that broke out Friday, but residents and officials have said the high death toll included soldiers, insurgents as well as scores of civilians.
“So far 187 dead have been buried, while 77 are under admission in hospitals,” Red Cross Spokesman Nwakpa O. Nwakpa told AFP.
More than 300 houses in the fishing town on the shores of Lake Chad “were burnt down”, he added.
Another rescue official who did not want to be named said “40 percent of the town has been gutted by fire”.
Baga lies in Borno state, the home base of Boko Haram, but the town had not previously been known as the site of such heavy fighting.
The Islamists have used the state capital Maiduguri as their base, but scores of militants have reportedly fled to more remote corners of the state following a crackdown by security forces in the city.
Initial reports suggested that the fighting started when soldiers surrounded a mosque allegedly housing Islamist insurgents.
But a resident told AFP that the clashes began when Boko Haram gunmen attempted to burst into a “viewing centre” where locals go to watch football matches.
Seeing the approaching militants, some in the viewing centre reportedly fled, causing the Islamists to open fire.
Nearby troops engaged the gunmen but were forced to withdraw under fire from heavily armed insurgents. Some resident reports said the militants were armed with rocket propelled grenades.
The troops later returned with a large contingent of re-enforcements.
The soldiers then “went on a shooting spree and set homes on fire. They opened fire on anybody within sight. Women, children and the elderly were not spared”, said the resident, who did not want to be named when accusing the military of such violence.
Leading domestic and international rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have accused Nigerian soldiers of massive abuses in operations against Boko Haram, including summary executions.
Such allegations have steadily been denied.
The Red Cross spokesman told AFP that the organisation has asked the military for full clearance to access the town and care for the victims.
“That has not yet been granted,” he said.
Borno state military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Sagir Musa has strongly denied earlier reports that nearly 200 people were killed.
“It is unthinkable to say that 185 people died,” Musa told AFP earlier.
Nigeria’s security forces have a history of minimising casualty figures in the conflict with Boko Haram, in a bid to downplay the Islamists’ capacity.
Baga is more than 150 kilometres (95 miles) from the state capital Maiduguri, a precarious drive on poor roads in a region hit by waves of violence.
Mobile phone network coverage in some parts of Borno was crippled last year after Boko Haram burned down a series of telecommunication masts.
The rescue worker, who requested anonymity told AFP “many residents are still unaccounted…It is assumed that they fled into the bush”, to escape the fierce fighting.
Boko Haram has said it is fighting to create an Islamic state in Nigeria’s mainly Muslim north, but the group’s demands have shifted repeatedly.
The conflict in Africa’s most populous country and top oil producer is estimated to have left about 3,000 people dead since 2009.
The toll includes people killed by the security forces.
Facing mounting political pressure over his inability to end the violence, President Goodluck Jonathan set up a panel last week to study how an amnesty could be offered to Boko Haram.
It is unclear if members of the radical sect are open to an amnesty deal.