Suspected Boko Haram militants killed nearly 150 people in northeastern Nigerian villages, mowing down men and children while they prayed in mosques and shooting women preparing food at home, witnesses said Thursday.
Dozens of militants stormed three remote villages in the flashpoint Borno state on Wednesday evening, slaughtering residents and setting houses ablaze in the bloodiest day of attacks by the extremist group since President Muhammadu Buhari came to power in May.
Gunmen killed at least 97 people in Kukawa, the worst-affected village, a local who gave his name as Kolo and who said he had counted the bodies told AFP.
“They wiped out the immediate family of my uncle… They killed his children, about five of them, and set his entire house ablaze,” Kolo said.
A fisherman who witnessed the attack corroborated the death toll.
Another witness in Kukawa, Babami Alhaji Kolo, who fled to the state capital Maiduguri, said more than 50 militants had stormed the village.
“The terrorists first descended on Muslim worshippers in various mosques who were observing the Maghrib prayer shortly after breaking their fast,” he said.
“They…opened fire on the worshippers who were mostly men and young children.
“They spared nobody. In fact, while some of the terrorists waited and set most of the corpses on fire, others proceeded to houses and shot indiscriminately at women who were preparing food,” he said.
– ‘Volleys of bullets’ –
In two other villages near the town of Monguno, meanwhile, gunmen killed 48 people and injured 11 others, local lawmaker Mohammed Tahir and witnesses told AFP.
“They selected particular male residents from among the crowd of worshippers… and opened fire on them before setting the two villages on fire and razing them to the ground,” Tahir said.
Another resident who managed to escape said the militants arrived in vans and on motorcycles.
“They killed 48 people and injured several others but many of us managed to escape amid volleys of bullets,” said the resident who asked not to be named for safety reasons.
Kukawa is around 50 kilometres away from the two villages near Monguno.
All three are located near Lake Chad, which straddles Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon and has been a focal point of the unrest.
Boko Haram has intensified its campaign of violence since Buhari came to power on May 29 vowing to crush the jihadists’ bloody uprising that has claimed at least 15,000 lives.
Since then, some 400 people have been killed in attacks blamed on the extremists, who have sworn allegiance to the Islamic State group, according to an AFP tally.
Boko Haram had captured scores of towns and villages in the northeast last year, but has since been pushed back by a four-nation military offensive that kicked off in February.
Despite their territorial losses, the insurgents have kept up their deadly raids, explosions and suicide attacks on “soft” targets such as markets and mosques.
A new regional fighting force comprising 8,700 troops from Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Benin is due to deploy at the end of the month to try definitively end the insurgency.
But they will face huge challenges in countering the guerrilla tactics to which Boko Haram has increasingly resorted.