By Ibrahim Mshelizza
BAMA, Nigeria (Reuters) - Suspected members of the Nigerian Islamist sect Boko Haram armed with machineguns laid siege on the northeastern town of Bama on Tuesday, freeing over 100 prison inmates and leaving 55 people dead, the military said.
Around 200 heavily armed members of Boko Haram arrived in buses and pick-up trucks and carried out a coordinated strike, first hitting the army barracks and the police station before breaking into the town's prison, military spokesman Sagir Musa told Reuters.
Musa said 22 police officers, 14 prison officials, two soldiers and four civilians were killed, while 13 of the group's own members died, in what was one of the rebel's most deadly single strikes since a 2009 uprising.
Gunmen freed 105 prisoners during the raid which began at around 5 a.m. (0400 GMT) and lasted almost five hours, Musa said. He said some of the attackers were dressed in army uniforms.
Bama's police station, army barracks and government buildings were set ablaze, he said.
"They came in army uniform pretending to be soldiers but were able to detect them," Musa said.
Bama is a small, remote town in northeastern Borno state, Boko Haram's home state and the nucleus of its attacks.
"The call to prayer was just being said at about 5 a.m. when the Boko Haram started shooting from all directions and we ran for our lives," eyewitness Amina Usman told Reuters.
"One woman who could not run burned to death," Usman added.
The Boko Haram sect and offshoots such as the al Qaeda-linked Ansaru, as well as associated criminal networks, pose the main threat to stability in Africa's top energy producer.
Western governments are increasingly concerned about Nigerian militants linking up with other jihadist groups in the West African region.
Boko Haram wants to carve out an Islamic state in a country split roughly equally between Christians and Muslims. One of its chief demands is that its imprisoned members and family members are released and it has carried out several prison breaks.
Attacks by Boko Haram have killed more than 3,000 people since 2009, based on figures from Human Rights Watch.
Violence in Nigeria's northeast has shown no signs of abating. Clashes between Islamists and a multinational force from Nigeria, Niger and Chad killed dozens of people last month.
A senator who visited the site said 228 people were killed, but the military puts the figure at 37.
President Goodluck Jonathan has set up a committee to work out the terms of an amnesty for the rebels but their leader, Abubakar Shekau, has shown no interest in it so far.
(Additional reporting by Tim Cocks in Maiduguri; Writing by Joe Brock; Editing by Michael Roddy)