Scores of suspected Islamist gunmen stormed a military barracks in northeast Nigeria on Friday, spraying gunfire on the troops inside before torching the compound, the army and residents said.
The military has reportedly deployed fighter jets and ground forces in pursuit of the gunmen, presumed to be Boko Haram Islamists, who have killed thousands in the region during a four-year uprising.
“There was an attack on the military barracks in (the town) of Bama this morning,” said Mohammed Dole, army spokesman in Borno state, the epicentre of the Boko Haram conflict.
He declined to comment on details provided by several Bama residents who said dozens, or perhaps even hundreds, of insurgents swarmed the barracks in a convoy of 4X4 trucks, armed with assault rifles, explosives and rocket-propelled-grenades.
“It started at around three in the morning with huge explosions and the cracking of gunfire,” said Bama resident Abdullahi Idris. “Later we saw plumes of smoke and fire from the barracks.”
Bama has become a flashpoint in the insurgency and the scene of several bold Islamist attacks. One of the Islamist rebels’ largest-ever strikes targeted the military in Bama in June.
According to Idris and other residents, military jets flew over the town after the attack.
The nearest air force base is in Borno’s capital Maiduguri, roughly 70 kilometres (44 miles) from Bama.
“A large section of the barracks” had been destroyed by fire, said another resident who asked for anonymity but identified himself as a member of the vigilante force which has formed in Borno to fight the Islamists.
He told AFP that fighter jets dropped bombs on the attackers, forcing them to flee.
Residents and Dole offered no estimates of casualties.
Borno and two other parts of Nigeria’s northeast were placed under a state of emergency in May.
The military operation launched in the region to crush the uprising has entered its eighth month but its effectiveness has been widely questioned.
But a statement issued by Major General Chris Olukolade, Director defence Information reads, “Bama Barracks in Borno State was in the early hours of today (Friday) attacked by terrorists who came from cells located across Nigerian Border with Cameroun through Banki town.”
Olukolade said High caliber weapons such as anti-aircraft and rocket propelled guns were freely used in the attack that lasted several hours.
“Ground troops backed by the Air Force have repelled the attack and are in pursuit of the insurgents. Details of casualties recorded in the incident will be released when the ongoing cordon and search operations in the general area is concluded.”
Meanwhile, reinforcement has been dispatched to enhance the operation in pursuit of the terrorists. Normalcy is being been restored in the barracks and the surrounding communities properly secured.
Defence officials have claimed Boko Haram is now only capable of attacking soft targets, but Friday’s raid in Bama, which came after a December 2 assault on the army and air force in Maiduguri, indicates the insurgents are still capable of daring offensives.
The UN has said that more than 1,200 people have been killed in the northeast in Boko Haram attacks since May, excluding insurgents killed during military operations.
Boko Haram, declared a foreign terrorist group by the United States, has said it is fighting to create an Islamic state in Nigeria’s mainly Muslim north.