By Lanre Ola
MAIDUGURI Nigeria (Reuters) - Suspected Islamist militants killed dozens of people on Sunday in an attack on three Nigerian villages, including one targeting worshippers at a church, a few kilometres (three miles) from Chibok, the scene of an abduction of more than 200 school girls.
Violence in Nigeria's northeast has been relentless in the past year and has gained in intensity since April, when more than 200 schoolgirls were snatched by Boko Haram rebels from Chibok. Efforts to free them, which have attracted Western support, have so far not succeeded.
In a separate assault on Friday evening insurgents killed seven soldiers in the village of Goniri, in Yobe state, a security source and witnesses said.
The attackers on Sunday made simultaneous strikes on three villages in the Chibok community, in Borno state.
Boko Haram, which is fighting for an Islamic state in largely Muslim northern Nigeria, has killed thousands since launching an uprising on 2009, and many hundreds in the past three months.
It is by far the biggest security threat to Africa's largest economy and top oil producer, and has overshadowed government efforts to project an image of Nigeria to foreign investors as a prospective economic giant.
Samuel Chibok, a survivor of the attack on Kautikiri village, about five km from where the girls were snatched, said that around 20 men in a Toyota pick-up truck and motorcycles rolled into town. They sprayed it with bullets, focusing much of their fire power on panicked worshippers in a local church.
"Initially I thought they were military but when I came out, they were firing at people. I saw people fleeing and they burned our houses," he said, adding that some people had died in the attack, including two of his relatives.
"Smoke was billowing from our town as I left."
A local pro-government vigilante, who declined to be named, said residents had now recovered 15 bodies from the village. He added that many of the deaths occurred when worshippers were locked in a church, which was then sprayed with bullets.
HEAVY DEATH TOLL
Boko Haram often attacks institutions it sees as against its strict version of Sunni Islam, including churches, bars and non-religious schools that teach Western ideas like science.
Another attack on Kwada, eight km (five miles) from Chibok village, left dozens of people dead, a security source operating in the area said, although the precise toll was not yet clear.
A senior advisor to Borno state governor Kassim Shettima, who declined to be named because he was not authorised to speak, said there had also been a third attack on Nguragida, his home village which he visited on Sunday. Nine bodies had been recovered from that attack, he said.
An explosion on Friday night in a brothel in the northeastern Nigerian city of Bauchi killed 11 people and wounded 28, police said on Saturday. This attack was also believed to be the work of Boko Haram.
A military operation in the northeast has so far failed to quell the rebellion and has triggered reprisal attacks that are increasingly targeting civilians, after they formed vigilante groups to try to help the government flush out the militants.
But their tactics - often striking then fleeing over the border into Cameroon - have repeatedly proved devastating. They are well armed and funded by a lucrative kidnapping operation.
In Friday night's attack on a military outpost, suspected Boko Haram fighters arrived in four armoured personel carriers and 11 Hilux trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns, said a security source and a witness who gave his name only as Hamisu.
"They were all dressed in full military but they did not direct their onslaught on the civilian population," Hamisu said by telephone.
The militants are extending their reach beyond their remote northeastern heartlands. A bomb in an upmarket shopping district of the capital Abuja killed 21 people on Wednesday, the third attack on the capital in three months.
President Goodluck Jonathan said Nigeria had entered one of the darkest phases of its history during a visit to the scene of the Abuja blast on Friday.
(Additional reporting by Joe Hemba in Damaturu; Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Ralph Boulton, Stephen Powell, Greg Mahlic)