Dozens of Nigerian civilians were killed Saturday in multiple suicide bombings in Maiduguri, the birthplace of the violent Islamist militant group Boko Haram, officials said.
Underscoring the difficulty of ensuring security for Nigerian national elections due to take place within weeks, suicide bombers attacked markets and a bus station in the city, killing more than 50 people, many of them women and children.
The bombers detonated four blasts in Maiduguri and a fifth car bomb at a military checkpoint outside the city. Police Commissioner Clement Adoda said at least 58 people were killed in the blasts over several hours. More than 150 were injured, news agencies reported.
Although no group claimed responsibility, the bombings in Boko Haram’s heartland bore the hallmarks of previous violence by the extremist group, which has a history of attacking soft civilian targets including markets, transport hubs, bars and churches.
Boko Haram is believed to be responsible for a series of suicide bombings in Maiduguri markets -- several carried out by young women or girls -- and other towns and cities mainly in northern Nigeria. The terror group has killed thousands of Nigerians in an insurgency lasting more than a decade.
The group appears to be scaling up suicide bombings as it loses territory, after suffering a series of defeats against Nigeria’s military and regional forces. In recent weeks, the militants have been driven out of successive towns and villages in northeast Nigeria.
Nigerian officials postponed elections that had been set for Feb. 14 because of the poor security conditions in the northeast, The vote is now due to take place later this month, but Boko Haram has vowed to attack polling stations.
Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau narrowly escaped capture in the northeastern town of Dikwa recently, Chadian president Idriss Deby said at a news conference Wednesday.
He said regional forces knew where Shekau was, and he would be killed if he didn’t surrender.
Nigerian media reported Saturday that Boko Haram insurgents were gathering in the town of Gwoza, south of Maiduguri, for an expected battle with regional forces. Many civilians remained trapped in the town, according to the media reports.
The first blast in Maiduguri on Saturday occurred outside a fish market, when a bomber on a tricycle detonated concealed explosives, killing at least 18 people.
"I saw many dead bodies lying on the ground, many dead, and several others badly injured," said fish seller Idi Idrisa, the Associated Press reported.
Bomb blasts followed at other markets and at a crowded bus station.
Later a car bomb was detonated at a military checkpoint.