Police hunted hundreds of inmates Thursday who escaped when suspected Islamists used machine guns and bombs in a Nigerian prison attack, while authorities warned other jails may be vulnerable.
The Islamist sect suspected in the attack that freed more than 700 prisoners had launched an uprising in the country’s north last year put down by a brutal assault, and Nigeria’s government said it would move to prevent a repeat.
More than 100 alleged members of the extremist group were among those who escaped in the Tuesday night siege in the northern city of Bauchi, police said.
The interior minister said the attackers, believed to be from a sect known as Boko Haram, used “overwhelming firepower,” and police described them as being armed with machine guns and homemade bombs.
They set fire to a section of the prison complex and fought a fierce gun battle with authorities. Police said four people were killed.
“We also wish to warn any potential troublemakers that the federal government will not fold its arms and allow the situation to degenerate unchecked,” Interior Minister Emmanuel Ihenacho said.
Leaflets were found at the scene after the attack warning of further violence and saying in the Hausa language that “this holy work was made possible by Allah’s grace, under the auspices of your mujahideen brethren.”
The head of Nigeria’s prisons visited the jail on Wednesday and said security would be tightened at other detention centres, particularly in areas that have been targeted in the past by the Islamists.
“We know there are some vulnerable prisons around,” said Olusola Ogundipe, naming two northern areas in particular, including Maiduguri, which was the centre of last year’s uprising. “We have beefed up security in these places.”
A military officer said on condition of anonymity that night patrols in the area would be conducted between 6:00 pm and 7:00 am.
Extra deployments would also be in place throughout the day Friday for the Eid holiday, with major events planned in celebrations that high-ranking politicians were expected to attend, the officer said.
Police said a total of 721 inmates were freed in the attack, including 105 suspected sect members. Thirty-five had been re-arrested, they said.
According to Ogundipe, more than 120 prisoners had returned on their own. He said authorities were “combing everywhere” to find the suspects and escaped prisoners, and checkpoints were set up throughout the area.
Bauchi state police commissioner Danlami Yar’Adua said 11 suspected sect members had been arrested.
The attackers numbered around 200, officials said, and witnesses described terrifying scenes.
Bullet casings littered the area on Thursday and the front gate to the prison was partly blackened by fire.
“They came in large numbers, heavily armed, and began shooting at the prison gate,” a prison guard, Salisu Mohammed, told AFP. “Some of us were hit while others fled.”
He said the attackers “gained access and moved from cell to cell, breaking in and freeing the inmates. They set fire to a section of the prison and burnt the vehicles parked outside the gate.”
One resident said the alleged sect members were chanting “Allahu Akbar” — or God is great — when they arrived.
Recent shootings blamed on sect members had signalled the group might be preparing to strike again in Africa’s most populous nation, roughly divided in half between Christians and Muslims.
Last year’s uprising began with attacks on police posts, and police were among the victims of the recent attacks by motorcycle-riding gunmen in northern Nigeria.
The 2009 uprising was crushed by a police and military assault, with hundreds eventually killed and the sect’s headquarters and mosque left in ruins.
Tuesday’s attack came on the same day officials announced January 22 as the date for Nigeria’s presidential vote and was an ominous sign in a country where elections have often been tainted by violence.
Boko Haram means “Western education is sin” in local Hausa dialect, though the sect has been known by various names, including the Nigerian Taliban. It had fought for the creation of an Islamic state in Nigeria.