Ijeoma Agudosi/Agency Report
Panic and chaos erupted in northeastern Nigeria Sunday as hundreds of Boko Haram fighters poured into two strategic towns in pre-dawn strikes that escalated into pitched battles as Nigerian army troops responded.
“It is flying bullets everywhere. All we hear are sounds of guns and explosions,” said Buba Kyari, who was among those caught up in the explosion of violence when Boko Haram struck the southern suburbs of Borno State’s capital Maiduguri.
“A rocket-propelled grenade hit and killed a person from my neighbourhood who was fleeing into the city,” Kyari said.
Around 125 kilometres (80 miles) north in Monguno, hundreds more Boko Haram militants staged another pre-dawn strike, causing terrified locals to flee as soldiers massed.
“Soldiers from the military barracks engaged them in a gunfight,” Monguno resident Banaye Ari told AFP.
“All the people in the town moved out as fighting was going on. We don’t know what happened after we fled.”
Monungo is home to a large military base and has been attacked several times in the past.
Panic and confusion was so great that many people escaping violence in Monguno fled toward Maiduguri as fighting continued to rage there.
“Many people from Monguno called me on the phone telling me they are outside the city, guarded by soldiers from Maimalari barracks,” said Abubakar Gamandi, head of the fishermen’s union in Borno state.
Monguno resident Ari confirmed that chaos as he and other terrified people fled one Boko Haram target to another city under siege.
“We are now kept in the open under the watch of soldiers who will not allow us enter the city,” Ari said outside Maiduguri. “They want to be sure there are no Boko Haram members among us.”
Fighting in both towns was intense throughout the day, as Islamist militants fought Nigerian ground troops who were equipped with heavy weaponry and backed by fighter jets.
Many civilians caught in the violence were people who had previously been displaced to Monguno and Maiduguri after Boko Haram stormed their home town of Baga January 3.
Amnesty International stressed the urgency of protecting both cities — in particular the teeming state capital Maiduguri.
“We believe hundreds of thousands of civilians are now at grave risk,” Amnesty’s Africa director Netsanet Belay said in a statement.
“People in and around Maiduguri need immediate protection. If the military doesn’t succeed in stopping Boko Haram’s advance they may be trapped with nowhere else to turn.”
Fears have been growing about a possible strike on Maiduguri since the militants began seizing towns and villages in three northeast states last year in their quest to create a hardline Islamic caliphate.
The fall of Baga — which caused tens of thousands of people to flee, and left hundreds of others dead — places Boko Haram in a better position to strike Maiduguri, security analysts say.
Last week, hundreds more people fled four villages about 40 kilometres (25 miles) south of Baga after a warning from the militants, indicating a clear plan to push south.
On Saturday, Boko Haram killed 15 people in the village of Kambari.
“The government’s failure to protect residents of Maiduguri at this time could lead to a disastrous humanitarian crisis,” Belay said.
“The government must ensure the protection of its civilians is at the core of its operations at this very dangerous time.”