BAGA, Nigeria (AP) — Fighting between Nigeria’s military and Islamic extremists killed at least 185 people in a fishing community in the nation’s far northeast, officials said Sunday, an attack that saw insurgents fire rocket-propelled grenades and soldiers spray machine-gun fire into neighborhoods filled with civilians.
The fighting in Baga began Friday and lasted for hours, sending people fleeing into the arid scrublands surrounding the community on Lake Chad. By Sunday, when government officials finally felt safe enough to see the destruction, homes, businesses and vehicles were burned throughout the area.
The assault marks a significant escalation in the long-running insurgency Nigeria faces in its predominantly Muslim north, with extremists mounting a coordinated assault on soldiers using military-grade weaponry.
Authorities had found and buried at least 185 bodies as of Sunday afternoon, said Lawan Kole, a local government official in Baga. He spoke haltingly to Borno state Gov. Kashim Shettima in the Kanuri language of Nigeria’s northeast, surrounded by still-frightened villagers.
Brig. Gen. Austin Edokpaye, also on the visit, did not dispute the casualty figures. Edokpaye said the extremists used heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades in the assault, which began after soldiers surrounded a mosque they believed housed members of the radical Islamic extremist network Boko Haram.
Edokpaye said extremists used civilians as human shields during the fighting — implying that soldiers opened fire in neighborhoods where they knew civilians lived.
“‘When we reinforced and returned to the scene the terrorists came out with heavy firepower, including (rocket-propelled grenades), which usually has a conflagration effect,” the general said.
Sunday afternoon, the burned bodies of cattle and goats still filled the streets. Bullet holes marred burned buildings.
“Everyone has been in the bush since Friday night; we started returning back to town because the governor came to town today,” grocer Bashir Isa said. “To get food to eat in the town now is a problem because even the markets are burnt. We are still picking corpses of women and children in the bush and creeks.”
The Islamic insurgency in Nigeria grew out of a 2009 riot led by Boko Haram members in Maiduguri that ended in a military and police crackdown that killed some 700 people. The group’s leader died in police custody in an apparent execution. From 2010 on, Islamic extremists have engaged in hit-and-run shootings and suicide bombings, attacks that have killed at least 1,548 people before Friday’s attack, according to an AP count.
Boko Haram, which means “Western education is sacrilege” in the Hausa language of Nigeria’s north, has said it wants its imprisoned members freed and Nigeria to adopt strict Shariah law across the multiethnic nation of more than 160 million people. While the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan has started a committee to look at the idea of offering an amnesty deal to extremist fighters, Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau has dismissed the idea out of hand in messages.
Despite the deployment of more soldiers and police to northern Nigeria, the nation’s weak central government has been unable to stop the killings. Meanwhile, human rights groups and local citizens blame both Boko Haram and security forces for committing violent atrocities against the local civilian population, fueling rage in the region.