MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (AP) — Suspected Islamic extremists who hid their assault rifles inside a coffin launched an attack against vigilantes in a northeast Nigeria city at the heart of the country's bloody insurgency, killing 13 people before being shot by security forces, witnesses said Saturday.
The attack happened Friday in Maiduguri, the spiritual home of the extremist network Boko Haram that's now targeted as part of a regional military offensive against extremists in the West African nation. Meanwhile, soldiers shot dead another eight suspected Boko Haram fighters in the city Thursday, leaving their bodies in a ditch in the restive city.
Friday's attack targeted members of a new youth vigilante group that's sprung up in Maiduguri comprised of men who point out suspected Boko Haram members to the military. The gunmen hid their Kalashnikov assault rifles inside a coffin draped in white cloth as if being prepared for a burial, allowing them to drive through the city's numerous military checkpoints without being searched, witness Sheriff Aji said. When they approached the vigilantes in a van, they pulled the rifles out from the coffin and opened fire, killing the civilians, Aji said.
"They continued shooting until they ran out of ammunition, then some courageous youth rounded them up and handed them over to the soldiers, who shot them dead as they attempted to escape," Aji told The Associated Press. Aji said he counted eight dead suspected Boko Haram gunmen after the shooting.
Lt. Col. Sagir Musa, a military spokesman in the city, could not be reached for comment Saturday as security forces have shut down mobile phone networks throughout the northeast as part of the offensive.
The shooting comes after President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency May 14 in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states — a territory of around 155,000 square kilometers (60,000 square miles) of the Sahel bordering Cameroon, Chad and Niger. In a nationally televised speech, Jonathan admitted the nation had lost control of some villages and towns to extremist fighters already responsible for more than 1,600 killings since 2010 alone, according to an AP count.
In the time since, the military claims it has killed and arrested suspected extremists. However, military officials who spoke to journalists on a recent trip through the northeast acknowledged many fighters likely fled with heavy weaponry including anti-aircraft guns and still remain a major threat to Africa's most populous nation.
Friday's attack likely was retaliation for vigilantes pointing out eight Boko Haram fighters to soldiers on Thursday. A security official told the AP that soldiers shot dead eight of the suspected Boko Haram members on Thursday night. The official spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to journalists.
On Saturday, an AP reporter saw the corpses of the eight men killed Thursday. They lay tangled together in a ditch in Maiduguri, beginning to bloat under the hot sun of this arid region. Soldiers largely have stopped carrying corpses of suspected insurgents to local hospitals, instead allowing them to rot as a morbid warning to others.