MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (Reuters) - Nigeria's military said it killed eight Islamist insurgents who attacked a market in the northeastern city of Maiduguri Monday, but a local nurse said his hospital had received at least 20 bodies from the fighting.
Residents said they heard gunfire and explosions in the Baga market area of the city. The spokesman for the joint military taskforce (JTF) there said the blasts were from the military deactivating three bombs in controlled explosions.
But a Reuters cameraman on the scene said the bombs appeared to have gone off and had left large craters in the road.
The Maiduguri-based sect Boko Haram is waging an increasingly violent insurgency against the Nigerian government, striking beyond its northeastern heartland to hit targets across the north and in the capital, Abuja.
"The JTF has killed eight BH (Boko Haram) members this afternoon who attacked and wounded three civilians at the Baga Road market," Lieutenant Colonel Hassan Mohammed told Reuters by telephone. "The sect members were engaged ... in a shootout."
The sect, which wants sharia law more widely applied across Africa's most populous nation, has become increasingly sophisticated and deadly in its methods in the last six months.
It often sets off multiple bombs in succession or follows them up with shooting sprees.
"The civilians wounded have been taken to hospital where they are receiving treatment while the market has been cordoned off," Mohammed said, adding that troops had deactivated three improvised explosive devices.
But a nurse at the University of Maiduguri Teaching Hospital said corpses from the fighting had been delivered there.
"I am not sure of the exact number but I saw more than 20 bodies," he said, adding that most were wearing traditional Islamic Kaftans worn by men in the area. None were in military uniforms.
A chauffer who was driving around the market said he saw two pickup trucks full of dead bodies at the Ibrahim Taiwo Police Division near Baga Market, before it was cordoned off.
Nigeria's security forces are struggling to contain the Boko Haram menace and a series of bloody crackdowns have often served to radicalize the local population against them.
A bomb exploded near a church in the Nigerian town of Suleja, on the edge of the capital, Sunday, wounding five people in an attack that bore the hallmarks of the sect.
Wednesday, gunmen suspected to be from Boko Haram stormed a prison in Kogi state in central Nigeria, killing one warden and freeing 119 prisoners, the prison authorities said.
Although the majority of the sect's attacks still occur in its home base in the northeast, its threat has spread and become more lethal. At least 178 people were killed in its most deadly attack last month in Nigeria's second biggest city, Kano.
(Reporting by Ibrahim Mshelizza; Writing by Tim Cocks)