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Residents of Maiduguri, the Borno State capital, were jolted yesterday from sleep by heavy gunfire.
Boko Haram militants launched a ferocious attack on the military. The government responded to the peace threat with a 24-hour curfew that shut airspace and cut off roads, the army, state government and eyewitnesses said.
Residents said hundreds of heavily armed gunmen besieged an Air Force and army base, destroying aircraft, razing buildings and setting shops and petrol stations ablaze in a deadly rampage. The attack is the most devastating in recent time.
Maiduguri’s airport and major roads were closed.
“I saw two Air Force helicopters burnt while in the whole of the 79 Composite Group (of the Nigerian Air Force) few buildings are still standing. Most of the structures have been attacked and destroyed,” said one man, who lives nearby, of yesterday’s attacks.
“At the 33 Artillery (battalion of the Nigerian Army), the terrorists destroyed the barracks and took away an armoured (personnel) carrier but left it along the highway.
“We heard women and children in the barracks crying and wailing. At the gate, I saw some vehicles destroyed and the checkpoint there in shreds,” said the man, a local government official, who asked to remain anonymous.
The man, who said he watched the attacks unfurl with his wife from his house, added that two people had been shot dead.
There was no immediate confirmation of fatalities or other casualties from the authorities.
“Frankly speaking, if the insurgents had wanted, they could have killed all of us… because they came in large numbers… some with explosives, some with rocket-propelled grenades and some with AK-47 rifles,” he added.
The state government and the military both confirmed the attack and the curfew.
But Army spokesman in Maiduguri, Colonel Muhammed Dole, said the Boko Haram fighters had been “successfully repelled” and had suffered “serious casualties”.
The areas around the airport were “calm and under control”, Col. Dole said, adding: “Our troops supported by the Air Force aircraft are presently pursuing the terrorists towards the Maiduguri-Benisheik road.”
A state of emergency is in force in Borno, Adamawa and Yobe.
The violence began at around 3:00 am (0200 GMT) and included bomb and gun attacks, said an AFP correspondent in the city, where Boko Haram was founded more than 10 years ago.
“They entered Maiduguri from the bush, chanting ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is great),” said one intelligence officer, adding that some insurgents had been detained, without specifying numbers.
Ambulances were seen moving out of the Air Force base and the adjoining Ngomari neighbourhood, according to the correspondent. Roads in the city were deserted and the sound of sirens from military vehicles could be heard, he added.
The insurgents had also ambushed military checkpoints on the outskirts of the city. Shops and petrol stations were also said to have been set on fire, local residents said.
Secretary to the State Government (SSG) Baba Ahmed Jidda called for calm, saying that only emergency service vehicles were allowed to move during the curfew, which would be lifted “as soon as the situation improves”.
Boko Haram militants killed 24 people in two strikes in the state last week – attacks that came after a military pledge to tighten security in border regions due to fears of Christmas and New Year attacks.
Boko Haram (Western education is s sin), wants to impose sharia in the North and has been blamed for thousands of deaths since 2009.