MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (AP) — Nigeria's military is in hot pursuit of Islamic extremists who abducted soldiers' wives and children when they attacked a barracks in northeast Nigeria, witnesses said Monday.
The bodies of presumed terrorists killed in Friday's attack on a tank battalion in Bama town are rotting in the desert heat but residents say they are too scared to bury them.
"The corpses are beginning to smell, there are many corpses lying out there in the bush ... but no one dares touch them, lest you are labeled a relation or collaborator," said resident Babagana Bama.
Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Chris Olukolade said security forces have killed at least 50 insurgents in an ongoing operation to catch the attackers. Fifteen soldiers and five civilians died in Friday's attack on a tank battalion in Bama and in the pursuit, he said in a statement.
"Intensive cordon and search operations are still ongoing to fish out the insurgents who might be lurking around communities in the area," Olukolade said.
Bama said the extremists "abducted many women and children and took them away."
Seizing relatives is also practiced by the other side. Nigeria's military routinely detains relatives of suspects, sometimes holding them hostage if a wanted person does not give himself up. The leader of the Boko Haram terrorist network, Abubakar Shekau, has repeatedly warned that they will retaliate with kidnappings of the family of security forces.
Dozens of wives and children of the insurgents were illegally detained for months and then released in May, when the government was trying to negotiate an amnesty. No agreement was reached and Shekau has said he will not negotiate with "infidels," or non-believers. He says he is fighting to impose Islamic law across Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation of more than 160 million people almost equally divided between the predominantly Muslim north and mainly Christian south.
Thousands of Muslims and Christians have been killed in the uprising, which poses the most serious threat to the security and cohesion of Africa's biggest oil producer since the civil war to create a separate state of Biafra in the 1960s.
Olukolade said the attackers came across the border from Cameroon. Fighters from Cameroon, Niger and Chad have been caught fighting alongside the Nigerian insurgents, the military has said, raising fears the insurgency could spread.
Friday's attack was stopped when the air force scrambled a jet fighter that strafed the insurgents, witnesses said. But not before the attackers set the entire complex ablaze, bombing buildings with improvised explosive devices, they said.
It was the second major attack on military installations this month. On Dec. 2, hundreds of fighters simultaneously overran an air force base and a military barracks a kilometer (nearly a mile) away on the outskirts of Maiduguri, the Borno state capital that is the birthplace of Boko Haram and at the heart of a military campaign using draconian emergency powers to try to put down the 4-year-old Islamic uprising.
Such attacks raise questions about military claims that they have the upper hand in the conflict. Security forces in the first few weeks of a state of emergency declared in May forced most fighters out of major urban areas, but they have been unable to dislodge them from a forested national park and mountainous areas with caves where they have been hiding out.
Faul reported from Lagos.