MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (AP) — Survivors of an assault by Islamic militants that killed a large number of civilians in Nigeria have described days of relentless violence in which, one witness said, some people were slaughtered "like insects."
The accounts were given by villagers who fled the carnage in and around Baga, a town in Borno state that lies in the northeastern corner of Nigeria near the border with Chad. The killing unfolded over several days after Boko Haram fighters seized a key military base there on Jan. 3.
Amnesty International has said there are reports that the death toll could be as high as 2,000, though some witnesses cite lower tolls in the hundreds.
Maj. Gen. Chris Olukolade, a military spokesman, said Monday that the evidence available so far indicates a death toll of no more than 150, including insurgents killed in combat with troops. The military has said 14 soldiers were killed and 30 were wounded in the Baga attack, and that it was making a plan to restore "law, order and normalcy" to the area.
U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon as well as the United States and other countries have condemned the Baga bloodshed, which highlights the increasingly brazen tactics of an insurgent movement in Nigeria's northeast as well as the inability of Nigerian forces to respond effectively. President Goodluck Jonathan is running for re-election in Feb. 14 elections, but it is uncertain how voting can proceed in areas under Boko Haram's sway.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the U.S. still was trying to get information from the ground on reported atrocities.
She said Nigeria needed to move forward with "credible and peaceful elections" despite the attacks, but acknowledged it would be difficult.
"Boko Haram is a huge threat," Harf said. She said the U.S. was trying to work with Nigeria despite the government's termination in November of a third phase of a training operation involving a Nigerian army battalion.
She also condemned "horrific reports today of young girls being used to conduct suicide attacks."
Boko Haram is suspected of using a 10-year-old girl to detonate a bomb at a market in Maiduguri on Saturday, killing at least 10 people and seriously injuring others. The bomb exploded after explosives were found under the girl's clothing during a search, according to witness accounts.
Insurgents have also been implicated in deadly bombings in Potiskum in northern Yobe state, which is adjacent to Borno. One bomb targeted a police building.
One survivor of the Baga violence, Ibrahim Gambo, estimated that more than 500 people may have died and said he did not know what happened to his wife and daughter. The 25-year-old truck driver said he was part of a civilian militia that, bolstered by a belief that its fighters were protected from bullets by a magical charm, initially had success in resisting Boko Haram insurgents.
But the army told his militia group to pull back so a military plane could attack Boko Haram forces, which then surrounded Baga when the plane didn't arrive, Gambo said in an interview with The Associated Press.
"It is sad that our fortification charm became ineffective once we showed fear," Gambo said.
"As we were running for our lives, we came across many corpses; both men and women, and even children," he said. Some had gunshot wounds in the head and some had their legs bound and hands tied behind their backs, he said.
Yahaya Takakumi, a 55-year-old farmer, told Nigeria's Premium Times that he escaped from Baga with one of his wives, but does not know the whereabouts of four of his children, his second wife and his elder brother.
"We saw dead bodies especially, on the islands of Lake Chad where fishermen had settled," the newspaper quoted Takakumi as saying. "Several persons were killed there like insects."
Boko Haram fighters opened fire on vessels carrying fleeing residents, Takakumi said. He and other survivors fled to Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state.
Nigeria's home-grown Boko Haram group drew international condemnation when its fighters kidnapped 276 schoolgirls from a boarding school in northeast Chibok town last year. Dozens escaped but 219 remain missing.
Torchia contributed to this report from Johannesburg.