Soldiers flee 13 die in attacks in north Nigeria
YOLA, Nigeria (AP) -- Soldiers abandoned checkpoints and fled into the bush, leaving five villages and a town at the mercy of Islamic extremists who killed at least 13 people and firebombed a theological college in overnight attacks in northeast Nigeria that lasted hours, survivors said Thursday.
On Tuesday, extremists killed 59 students when they struck a school in Yobe state, hours after soldiers were inexplicably withdrawn from a roadblock set up to protect the institution.
The recent string of assaults in an Islamic uprising gripping the northeast of Africa's biggest oil producer comes amid widespread criticism of military failures despite a 9-month-old state of emergency.
"It is curious that under an emergency rule when security operatives are on red alert, this mayhem still persists," Senate president David Mark said Wednesday in a statement calling the attacks an "open declaration of war."
Visiting African leaders also condemned the attacks and expressed solidarity with Nigeria as it began official centenary celebrations Thursday marking the unification under British colonizers of the mainly Muslim north and majority Christian south.
It began with a conference on human security and a keynote address by French President Francois Hollande, who said Nigeria's struggles are France's struggles. He pledged support for Nigeria's fight against terrorism.
The latest attacks began around 8:30 p.m. Wednesday on Kirchinga village of Adamawa state, near the border with Cameroon, with insurgents in a convoy of 13 all-terrain pickup trucks shooting as they lobbed firebombs into thatch-roofed huts.
Villagers fled but the attackers pursued them all the way to neighboring Shuwa town, according to survivors who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
"When the soldiers at the military checkpoints saw the number of the attackers, they retreated into the nearby bushes as the gunmen operated without challenge during the operation that lasted throughout the night," said a pastor in Shuwa.
Blasts from firebombs could still be heard at 2:30 a.m. Thursday, survivors said.
The pastor said the soldiers remained in hiding while the assailants set numerous buildings on fire in Shuwa, including banks, a police station, the homes of prominent residents and a bishop, and a seminary.
They said at least 13 people were killed in Kirchinga and Shuwa, but the toll was expected to rise when the dead are counted in other attacked villagers.
Nigeria's military and President Goodluck Jonathan have insisted that the soldiers have the upper hand in the conflict. But the increasing frequency and deadliness of attacks appear to challenge those claims -- more than 300 civilians have been killed so far in February in the states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa, all under the state of emergency that covers one-sixth of Africa's most populous nation.
Entire towns and villages were under the sway of the Boko Haram terrorist network when Jonathan declared the state of emergency in May. The military quickly forced the insurgents out of urban areas, only to have them regroup in forests and mountain caves where it has proved difficult to flush them out.
The military said recent attacks are being perpetrated by extremists escaping a sustained aerial bombardment and ground assaults on their forest hideouts along the border with Cameroon, an offensive begun after Jonathan fired and replaced his entire military command last month. On Saturday, the military announced it had closed hundreds of miles of the border with Cameroon to prevent militants using it as a launch pad for attacks.
Tens of thousands of people have lost family members, homes, all their belongings, businesses and livelihoods and thousands of acres of farmland have been abandoned by refugees who have fled the insurgents as well as the fallout from a military campaign tainted by gross human rights abuses.