Military clashes with insurgents in northern Nigeria

People walk past the Borno state police command headquaters in Maiduguri, in July 2010.  By Pius Utomi Ekpei (AFP/File)

People walk past the Borno state police command headquaters in Maiduguri, in July 2010. By Pius Utomi Ekpei (AFP/File)

KANO, Nigeria (AFP) – Nigeria’s military clashed with suspected Islamist insurgents in a remote northeastern village at the weekend, but casualty figures remained unclear, officials said on Monday.

The clashes broke out in the fishing village of Baga on Lake Chad, leaving scores of buildings burnt, according to an official who toured the area on Sunday with regional governor Kashim Shettima.

The military spokesman for the Borno state, Lt. Colonel Sagir Musa told AFP that media reports that some 180 people could have died in the clashes were “extensively inflated.”

Scores of residents fled when the fighting broke out on Friday and had still not returned on Sunday, said the governor aide, who requested anonymity.

Although there were signs of heavy damage from the fighting, officials have not yet said how many died in the clashes.

“There could have been some casualties, but it is unthinkable to say that 185 people died,” Musa said, when asked about media reports.

“On my honour as an officer, nothing like that happened.” He declined to offer a specific figure.

Nigeria’s security forces have a history of downplaying casualty figures in the conflict with Boko Haram, the Islamist group based in the Borno state which has left several thousand people dead.

Resentment of the military is high in some communities and locals have in the past given inflated deaths tolls while accusing the military of indiscriminately killing civilians during their operations.

Locals reported that the clashes began when the military surrounded a mosque housing suspected Islamists.

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 Islamists have used the Borno state capital of Maiduguri as a base, but scores of insurgents have reportedly fled to more remote corners of the state following a crackdown by security forces in the capital.

The conflict is estimated to have left about 3,000 people dead since 2009, including killings by the security forces, who have been accused of by international rights groups of massive abuses, especially in the northeast.

Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country and top oil producer.