As Nigerian militants flex their muscles, officials downplay damage

Police stand guard beside a burned-out truck following an attack Monday by Boko Haram militants in Maiduguri, Nigeria.
(Abdulkareem Haruna / Associated Press)

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Nigerian officials on Tuesday played down the damage wreaked by Al Qaeda-linked militants in an attack the day before on an air base near the capital of Borno state.

The official account -- which said only two civilians were among the dead, and who for the most part were said to be rebels -- differed sharply from witness accounts and unnamed military officials who said scores of people were slain, including members of the security forces.

Nigerian military spokesman Brig. Gen. Chris Olukolade said 24 Boko Haram fighters died and two Nigerian air force personnel were injured. Two operational military helicopters and three decommissioned air force planes were damaged, he said. Olukolade said dozens more militants were wounded.

Two brothers who had just finished their morning prayers were among those killed, according to local media reports.

Maiduguri, the state capital, is the birthplace of Boko Haram, and the militant group enjoys significant support there.


The attack, which involved hundreds of Boko Haram fighters, including some on a stolen armed personnel carrier, indicated the group’s continued strength, despite air attacks aimed at destroying remote rebel bases.

Boko Haram, named as a terrorist organization by the U.S. last month, has staged bombings, drive-by shootings, kidnappings and mass assaults in northern Nigeria for the last four years in a bid to impose Islamic law and ban secular education. It often attacks police stations and military installations, but has also hit soft targets such as churches and schools.

Authorities have struggled to end the almost daily attacks, which have killed thousands of people.

The group’s style has been to launch frequent small attacks, punctuated by intermittent high-profile assaults. In 2009, it fought security forces in Maiduguri for several days in its first major operation, leaving about 800 people dead. In 2011, the militants carried out a suicide bombing on the United Nations headquarters in Abuja that killed 19 people, and last year it attacked in Kano, an assault that left more than 160 people dead.

On Monday, Nigeria’s Vanguard newspaper and the Associated Press reported that scores died in the attack. The Vanguard quoted a witness who claimed to have seen five military trucks taking bodies from the air base. AP cited witnesses who saw bodies ferried away by ambulances.

The rebels also attacked military checkpoints, gasoline stations, shops and houses.


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