BOSSO, Niger (AP) — Soldiers involved in a shootout with Islamic militants who were given refuge in one Nigerian village hut took revenge on the community by setting ablaze about 10 homes, according to refugees who fled to neighboring Niger.
Their stories indicate a pattern of Nigerian security forces punishing entire communities, including innocent civilians, in a state of emergency that covers three northeastern states and one-sixth of the country.
Refugees spoke to an Associated Press reporter on a trip with Nigerian officials who are pleading with them to return home, visiting thousands who have fled across borders to escape an Islamic uprising and a military crackdown.
Deputy Gov. Zannah Mustapha of Borno state visited the neighboring nation of Niger on Saturday, the same day Islamic militants killed 29 students and a teacher in neighboring Yobe state. Earlier this week, he visited more than 20,000 refugees in Cameroon.
Mustapha promised "adequate security" would be provided to ensure their safety from further attacks in their northeastern hometown of Mallam Fatori.
The refugees, among 6,240 recorded in Niger, indicated they are as scared of the Islamic extremists as they are of the soldiers who are supposed to protect them.
Taxi driver Madi Bukar said, "The trouble started three weeks ago when soldiers got the hint that some wounded Boko Haram insurgents were bring kept and treated in a particular house" in Mallam Fatori. They attacked the home and there was a heavy exchange of gunfire — "the bullets were falling like insects," before the militants fled.
After that, Bukar said, "the soldiers set fire to houses, at least 10 houses were burned down."
He and about 3,000 other villagers fled on foot across the border into Niger.
Habiba Abdullahi, the 46-year-old mother of six children, said she has nothing to go home to, though life as a refugee is tough.
"There was shooting and confusion around our houses in Mallam Fatori. Then we saw fire burning our roofs, we really cannot say what was happening, but we all had to run for our dear lives."
The refugees, who are living in the homes of local villagers, were never given a chance to tell their story to Mustapha, who was surrounded by armed soldiers and police. On the drive to Niger over desert dunes, Mustapha stopped to check on the progress of 40 houses being built in Munguno.
In March, extremist fighters attacked the military at their Munguno Barracks, near the village of the same name. The soldiers retaliated by razing the entire village of about 40 huts with thatched roofs.
Gov. Kashim Shettima condemned the attack and promised to rebuild the village, with brick houses, in an area further away from the barracks.
President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency on May 14 and sent thousands of troops to put down the insurgency, admitting that Islamic militants had taken control of several towns and many villages in the northeast bordering Chad, Cameroon and Niger.
Despite a string of recent attacks by Islamic militants on schools, Col. Ibrahim Ali, commander of the Joint Military Task Force in Yobe state, told reporters Sunday that the security situation is much improved since the soldiers have driven the rebels out of their enclaves.
He described the situation in Yobe as "relatively stable." Before dawn on Saturday, Islamic militants attacked a school just outside Potiskum, the second biggest town in Yobe state, dousing a dormitory with fuel and burning alive some of the students.
In the most egregious attack by the military on civilians, soldiers in April attacked the fishing village of Baga after a sniper killed a trooper. The soldiers scorched entire neighborhoods and killed at least 187 people, according to witnesses and human rights organizations. The military says they killed about three dozen Islamic militants in that attack.
In October, soldiers in Maiduguri, capital of Borno state, killed more than 30 civilians and burned down shops and homes, witnesses said. At Maiduguri General Hospital, security forces have dumped bodies and fought with doctors.
It's difficult to get information from the area under a state of emergency since the military has cut cell phone service and banned the use of satellite telephones. Reporters drive for hours to neighboring states to file their reports.
Michelle Faul reported from Lagos, Nigeria.