KANO (AFP) – Suspected Islamist insurgents killed 29 people in embattled northeast, an official said Monday, the latest carnage in a surge of violence that has left more than 100 dead this month alone.
The latest attack on Sunday hit the town of Mafa in Boko Haram’s historic stronghold of Borno state, which is witnessing one of the deadliest episodes of the group’s nearly five-year-old rebellion.
The militants had sent fliers to the town earlier in the week, warning of an impending attack, a tactic used by the extremists elsewhere in the region, said Borno senator Ahmed Zanna.
Following the threat, some people fled, schools were closed and military reinforcements were deployed to the town roughly 45 kilometres (28 miles) northeast of Borno’s capital Maiduguri.
But when the attack began “the soldiers fled because they could not match the firepower and numerical strength of the gunmen,” Zanna told AFP.
“Twenty-nine people have been buried from the attack by Boko Haram,” he said.
Borno’s police commissioner Lawal Tanko confirmed the latest unrest and said units were headed to Mafa to assess the damage.
– Death toll could rise –
Boko Haram’s uprising, aimed at creating a strict Islamic state in northern Nigeria, has killed thousands since 2009.
Statistics have typically been hard to verify, as much of the violence has occurred in remote regions, often with poor phone access.
More than 330 people have been killed already this year — a nearly unprecedented two-month rate for the four-and-half-year conflict.
More than 800 people were killed during fierce clashes between Islamists and the police in Maiduguri in 2009.
On Saturday, 35 people died when two bombs exploded in a busy district of Maiduguri and 39 killed about an hour later when gunmen opened fire on a nearby village with heavy weaponry.
Boko Haram previously hit targets across northern Nigeria and while the military has largely managed to contain the violence in the northeast, outrage is building in the region over the Islamists’ apparent ability to attack at will and with impunity.
The governor of Borno state, Kashim Shettima claimed last month that the military was outgunned by better-equipped Boko Haram fighters after an attack on February 15 left 106 dead.
A Mafa resident who requested anonymity said the attackers were armed with explosives, rocket-propelled-grenades and lighter weapons.
They razed several homes, he said, and warned that the death toll may still rise.
“Houses are still smouldering and we intend to search the debris for more bodies,” he added.
– ‘A revenge mission’ –
Nigeria declared a state of emergency in the northeast in May and launched an offensive in May aimed at ending the insurgency.
But many believe the military onslaught has intensified the violence, with the Islamists launching waves of reprisal attacks, typically on defenceless civilians.
Boko Haram “is on a revenge mission,” the Mafa resident said, noting that many of his neighbours were still in the bush outside the town, afraid of yet another raid.
There are increasing worries of a humanitarian crisis, as people across the northeast flee their homes in fear.
The UN said last Thursday that a total of 290,002 people had been internally displaced in the region between the start of emergency rule and January 1 this year.
President Goodluck Jonathan has struggled to find solutions to the crisis, repeatedly promising those caught up in the violence that the military strategy is working and that Boko Haram will be defeated soon.
Analysts and Western diplomats have said that improving economic opportunity in the deeply impoverished north is the only permanent solution to the conflict.