Hundreds of people have been killed in northeastern Nigeria in terror attacks in the last week, local officials say, as Boko Haram militants took control of 16 towns in a new humiliation for the country’s struggling armed forces.
Boko Haram gunmen stormed the town of Baga on Saturday, killing about 100, district head Baba Abba Hassan said. In all, hundreds appear to have died in attacks across the region, local officials said. But Hassan dismissed reports circulated on Internet social media sites that 2,000 people had been killed.
"To say 2,000 people were killed is on the high side. The death toll could run into several hundreds." Hassan said, adding that no headcount had been made.
"To add to our misery, Boko Haram fighters who remained in the area went on a burning spree, setting fire to our homes after looting them," Hassan said.
Nigerian military authorities say they plan to launch a counterattack to regain control of Baga, a fishing community on the shores of Lake Chad adjacent to a military base. The base is part of a multinational effort to fight the Islamist militants with troops from Nigeria, Niger and Chad. But forces from Chad had not yet been deployed and Niger's forces had withdrawn from the base before the Boko Haram attack took place.
Gruesome images have sprung up on Twitter, including ones showing hundreds of badly burned corpses laid out on a village square. One shocking image showed a woman and her baby, both burned to death. Images are accompanied by the hashtag #BokoHaramKilled2000People.
But according to an African fact-checking agency, the picture of the corpses was taken after a fuel tanker explosion several years ago in the Republic of Congo. And the burned baby photo has been circulating since 2011, according to security analyst Yan St-Pierre.
Access to Nigeria’s troubled northeast region is difficult for security reasons, and those displaced by fighting tend to flee in different directions, making it impossible to confirm how many died in the recent attacks. Sen. Maina Ma'aji Lawan said in a phone interview that the death toll of the attacks was "impossible to quantify at the moment."
Babagana Kyari, a resident of Baga who fled to Chad, said hundreds of Boko Haram fighters attacked the town and nearby villages at dawn, driving residents away and attacking the military base.
"They overwhelmed the troops and forced them to abandon the base which the Boko Haram gunmen took over. The insurgents split into groups and attacked Baga, Doron-Baga and Bundaram villages, forcing everybody to flee. Gunmen on motorcycles pursued residents into the bush, shooting them dead.
“I managed to make it to the lake (Chad) where I boarded a fishing boat along with dozen others and made across into Chad,” he said in a phone interview.
The Baga defeat was a serious blow for regional efforts to contain Boko Haram. Nigerian troops resisted the attack for several hours before running out of ammunition and fleeing, according to agency reports.
Abdullahi Bawa Wase, security analyst, said the loss of Baga was a devastating blow to Nigeria’s efforts to defeat Boko Haram.
“The capture of Baga is of enormous significance,” he said in an interview. “It has put a lie to the Nigerian government claim that it is on top of the situation.
“Baga was the last town in the hands of the Nigerian government in the region and now with the seizure of Baga the whole northern Borno is now under the control of Boko Haram. Their next move is predictable, which is expanding their territory southwards.”
He said Baga is an important regional economic center. "Baga as an agricultural and fishing center will provide huge economic benefits to Boko Haram who will no doubt exploit its rich potentials for restocking and arming its fighters for its operations.”
Nigerian chief of military staff, Air Chief Marshall Alex Badeh, told journalists that Chadian troops had not reached the base at Baga before the attack, and had withdrawn from the border region. Troops from Niger withdrew from the base before the attack, leaving only Nigerian forces to confront Boko Haram.
However, Badeh said the multi-national effort to fight Boko Haram would continue as planned.
“Everybody is doing his best and trying to improve and reverse any noted setback,” Nigerian military spokesman Maj. Gen. Chris Olukolade told the News Agency of Nigeria on Friday.
Baga has been attacked repeatedly in recent years, most recently in November, when militants cut the throats of 43 fishermen, drowning those who didn’t die from their wounds in the waters of Lake Chad.
Boko Haram, which has long terrorized northern Nigeria, kidnapped 276 schoolgirls in the northeastern town of Chibok in April. Hundreds more women and girls have been kidnapped, and thousands -- mainly men and boys -- have been killed.
The Council on Foreign Relations, which tracks security in Nigeria based on media reports, says that more than 16,000 people have been killed by Boko Haram since 2011, though it cautions that accounts are often sketchy.
The CFR said there has been a major increase in Boko Haram killings this past year, with about 11,000 Boko Haram killings in 2014, of the more than 16,000 killed by the group since 2011.
With Nigeria facing elections next month, the poor security situation in many parts of northeast Nigeria means many citizens will probably be unable to vote. Nigeria’s military has pledged to protect voters, but it does not control large portions in the northeast region. A low turnout in the northeast would probably help incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan, since northern elders have indicated they supported his opponent, 72-year-old former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari.
Some 7,300 people have fled their homes in the wake of Boko Haram attacks during the last week, according to the United Nations. In all, about 850,000 northeastern Nigerian residents have been displaced by fighting.
About 1,000 people are stranded on the island of Kangala in Lake Chad, according to the U.N.
Abubakar Gamandi, head of the fish traders' union in Borno state, said he had phoned the trapped refugees. "They told me some of them are dying from lack of food, cold and malaria on the mosquito-infested island," he said in an interview.
A spokesman for UNHCR, the U.N.’s refugee agency, said it and other humanitarian agencies were assisting the Nigerian refugees who have fled to Chad, Niger and Cameroon.
“We're already providing plastic sheets, jerry cans, mats, blankets and kitchen tools. Other humanitarian organizations are distributing aid too,” UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards said Friday in Geneva.
Special correspondent Abubakar reported from Kano and Times staff writer Dixon from Johannesburg, South Africa.