MAIDUGURI, Nigeria: Boko Haram militants launched a daring raid on the military in the northeast Nigerian city of Maiduguri overnight, prompting a 24-hour curfew that shut airspace and cut off roads, the army, state government and eyewitnesses said.
Local residents said that hundreds of heavily armed Islamist gunmen besieged an air force and army base, destroying aircraft, razing buildings and setting shops and petrol stations ablaze in a deadly rampage.
The attack, which closed Maiduguri’s airport and roads into and out of the city, comes after military claims that the banned group had been successfully pushed out of urban centers into more remote, rural areas of Borno state.
Boko Haram has previously launched massive, coordinated attacks on the security services in Borno but the reported scale of the latest strike could make it one of the biggest against the military in Maiduguri in many months.
In 2009, militants battled the security forces in the city for several days, leaving more than 800 dead.
“I saw two air force helicopters burnt while in the whole of the 79 Composite Group [of the Nigerian Air Force], few buildings are still standing. Most of the structures have been attacked and destroyed,” said one man, who lives nearby, of Monday’s attacks.
“We heard women and children in the barracks crying and wailing. At the gate, I saw some vehicles destroyed and the checkpoint there in shreds,” said the man, a local government official, who asked to remain anonymous.
The man, who said he watched the attacks with his wife from his house, added two people had been shot dead.
There was no immediate confirmation of fatalities or other casualties.
The Borno government and the military confirmed the attack and curfew.
But the Nigerian Army’s spokesman in Maiduguri, Colonel Mohammad Dole, said the Boko Haram fighters had been “successfully repelled” and had suffered “serious casualties,” without specifying numbers.
The areas around the airport were “calm and under control,” Dole said, adding: “Our troops, supported by the Nigerian Air Force aircraft, are presently pursuing the terrorists toward the Maiduguri-Benisheik road.”
Nigeria’s government imposed a state of emergency in Borno and two other northeast states in May, cutting phone lines in a move designed to block militants from coordinating attacks.
Details of the ongoing conflict have as a result been difficult to verify.
The latest violence began at around 3 a.m. and included bomb and gun attacks, said an AFP correspondent in the city, where Boko Haram was founded over 10 years ago.
Boko Haram, whose name translates from Hausa as “Western education is sin,” wants to impose a strict form of Shariah.