BY NDAHI MARAMA
MAIDUGURI—No fewer than 185 persons, including women and children, have been killed and more than 2000 houses destroyed in an intense fighting between the military and suspected members of Boko Haram sect in Baga, a fishing community in Kukawa Local Government Area of Borno State.
Soldiers were said to have bombarded the remote town of Baga near the Nigerian border with Chad for hours last Friday evening exchanging rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine-gun fire with insurgents in the neighbourhoods filled with civilians.
The fighting saw insurgents fire rocket-propelled grenades as soldiers sprayed machine-gun fire into the neighbourhoods.
The fighting in Baga began Friday and lasted for hours, sending people fleeing into the arid scrublands surrounding the community on Lake Chad. By Sunday, when government officials finally felt safe enough to see the destruction, homes, businesses and vehicles were burnt throughout the area.
A local government official, Mallam Lawan Kole told Governor Kashim Shettima who inspected the affected area that at least 185 bodies had been found and buried on Sunday afternoon.
The Commander of the Multinational Forces, Brigadier General Austin Edokpaye, who was also on the visit did not dispute the casualty figures.
Edokpaye said: “We received an intelligence report that some suspected Boko Haram members usually pray and hide arms at a particular mosque in the town and after soldiers had surrounded the mosque, the extremists used heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades to attack the soldiers. They reportedly used civilians as human shields during the fight. We lost an officer during the attack on our men.
“When we reinforced and returned to the scene, the terrorists came out with heavy firepower including RPGs which usually has a conflagration effect.” Edokpaye said.
General Austin Edokpaye, however, revealed that the conflagration that consumed the town and the resultant deaths should be blamed on the Boko Haram terrorists who opened fire on soldiers and were using civilians as human shield. He also denied allegations by the residents that the shootout was unprovoked.
A resident of Baga town whose name was given as Mallam Bana told the visiting Governor Shettima that the incident started at about 8pm on Friday night.
“The soldiers were mindless that night in their approach; they killed (our people) and burnt our houses, chased everyone into the bush including women and children. So far, we have buried 185 corpses, some were burnt beyond recognition; others are hospitalised with various degrees of burns,” Mallam Bana said.
According to a grocer, Bashir Isa, “everyone has been in the bush since Friday night. We started returning to town because the governor came to town today. To get food to eat in the town now is a problem because even the markets are burnt. We are still picking corpses of women and children in the bush and creeks.”
By Sunday afternoon, the burnt bodies of cattle and goats still filled the streets while bullet holes marred burnt buildings.
Jonathan orders probe
Meanwhile, President Goodluck Jonathan has ordered a full scale probe into the incident at Baga in Borno State and assured Nigerians and the global community that Nigeria ‘’places the highest possible value on the lives of all citizens of the country and that his administration will continue to do everything possible to avoid the killing or injuring of innocent bystanders in security operations against terrorists and insurgents.”
A statement by Dr. Reuben Abati, Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity said in part: “Rules of engagement for the military and security agencies are already in place for this purpose and the investigation ordered by President Jonathan into the incident in Baga is to amongst other things, determine whether or not these rules were fully complied with.
The President has also ordered the National Emergency Management Authority (NEMA) and Federal health agencies to liaise with the Borno State Government and take urgent steps to provide immediate relief and medical support for all who suffered losses and injury in the fighting at Baga.”
Our ordeal: French ex-hostages released by Boko Haram
Meanwhile, members of the French family held hostage for two months by the Boko Haram sect, spoke about their ordeal on French national television over the weekend. They said the four children helped them get through the tough times.
Despite their kidnapping, the family said it would be happy to return to Cameroon.
“It’s a superb country,” said Tanguy Moulin-Fournier, head of the family. “We were there for two years. We have friends there and Cameroonian brothers.”
The French family kidnapped in Cameroon by suspected Boko Haram Islamist militants were released last Thursday, without a ransom paid, French president François Hollande said. The group had released videos of the family, threatening to kill them if authorities in Nigeria and Cameroon did not release Muslim militants held there.
However, Albane Moulin-Fournier, in a prime-time interview Saturday night, said that there had been some “very hard moments, physically,” during their captivity.
Albane was held in a different location from her husband, Tanguy, who said they were put in extreme heat with little access to water. Tanguy’s brother Cyril said a routine of daily activities for the children helped the family keep their sanity.
“There were activities. We folded up the sheets in the morning. We went to prepare breakfast,” said Cyril. “It was important to keep up a daily routine.”