Almost 200 killed in gun battles in Nigeria

Most of the victims of the violence, which started on Friday in the north-east village of Baga, are civilians.

In this image shot with a mobile phone, a young girl stands amid the burned ruins of Baga.
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KANO, NIGERIA // More than 185 people are believed to have been killed and 2,000 houses burnt in a battle between soldiers and suspected Islamist militants.

Most of the victims of the violence, which started on Friday in the north-east village of Baga, are civilians.

The fighting, which killed one officer, began after a patrol was attacked near a mosque where Boko Haram fighters have hidden weapons, Brig Gen Austin Edokpaye said on a visit to the area yesterday.

Militants "came out with heavy firepower", including rocket-propelled grenades, he told the Borno state governor, Kashim Shettima.

"The soldiers were mindless that night," a Baga resident, Mallam Bana, told Mr Shettima.

"They killed and burnt our houses, chased everyone into the bush including women and children."

The Borno state military spokesman, Lt Col Sagir Musa, said media reports claiming that nearly 200 people could have died in the clashes were "extensively inflated".

"There could have been some casualties, but it is unthinkable to say that 185 people died," Lt Col Musa said. "On my honour as an officer, nothing like that happened."

When gun battles broke out in Baga on Friday, residents were forced to flee the fishing village, which also serves as a small trading centre on the shores of Lake Chad.

It lies in Borno state, the home of Boko Haram, who are blamed for carrying out scores of attacks across northern and central Nigeria since 2009.

There was extensive damage to the village, including signs that a fire had razed several homes and a market, according to an official who toured the area on Sunday with Mr Shettima.

The official said residents reported deaths among the insurgents, soldiers as well as civilians.

A regional spokesman for the National Emergency Management Agency, Abdulkadir Ibrahim, said his personnel had arrived in Baga but communication was difficult and it was too early to assess the scale of the attack.

Mobile phone network coverage in some parts of Borno was crippled last year after Boko Haram burnt down telecommunications masts.

The emergency agency is trying to distribute "humanitarian assistance to victims", Mr Ibrahim said. An exact death toll and reports 2,000 homes were destroyed "cannot be independently verified", he added.

A spokesman for the Red Cross charity, Nwakpa O Nwakpa, said a significant attack occurred but "we really don't know yet how many people died. Once the security situation is clear, Red Cross staff will move in".

Baga is more than 150 kilometres from the state capital, Maiduguri, a precarious drive on poor roads in a region hit by waves of violence.

Boko Haram has used Maiduguri as a base for its insurgency but scores of militants have reportedly fled to more remote corners of the state following a crackdown by security forces in the city.

Residents told the governor's delegation that the clashes started when troops surrounded a mosque that was believed to be sheltering insurgents. A shoot-out ensued and there were reports that the Islamists used heavy weapons such as rocket-propelled grenades, but the nature of the fighting could not be confirmed and details were still emerging.

Nigeria's security forces have a history of minimising casualty figures in the conflict with Boko Haram in a bid to downplay the group's capacity.

But resentment of the military is high in some communities and locals have in the past given inflated death tolls while accusing the military of indiscriminately killing civilians during their operations.

Boko Haram has said it is fighting to create an Islamic state in Nigeria's mainly Muslim north but the group's demands have shifted repeatedly. The conflict in Africa's most populous country and top oil producer is estimated to have left about 3,000 people dead since 2009.

This includes people killed by the security forces, who have been accused by international rights groups of abuses, especially in the north-east.

Facing mounting political pressure over his inability to end the violence, the Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan, set up a panel last week to study how an amnesty could be offered to Boko Haram. It is unclear if the sect would be open to such a proposal.

* Agence France-Presse and Bloomberg News