MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (AP) — Islamic extremists firing anti-aircraft rockets and rocket-propelled grenades attacked a tank battalion barracks in northeast Nigeria and set the entire complex ablaze, the military and witnesses say.
The pre-dawn attack Friday in the beleaguered town of Bama was repelled by an air raid and ground assault, Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Chris Olukolade said. Civilians and a security officer working on the base said all the buildings were torched before a fighter jet arrived, firing explosives that drove off the insurgents.
Many fighters on both sides were killed in the hours-long battle, according to those witnesses, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared they could lose their jobs. Olukolade said casualty figures would be given "when the ongoing cordon and search operations" are complete.
It was the second major attack on security force installations this month, raising doubts about the military's ability to halt an Islamic uprising despite a 7-month-old state of emergency backed by draconian powers in three northeastern states covering one-sixth of Africa's biggest oil producer.
On Dec. 2, hundreds of insurgents attacked two military barracks more than a mile (2 kilometers) apart on the outskirts of Maiduguri, capital of Borno state, the birthplace of the Islamic uprising and at the heart of the military campaign to put it down.
Abubakar Shekau, leader of the Boko Haram extremist network, claimed the brazen attack in a video that showed footage of attackers strolling casually through the deserted air base and setting ablaze three jetfighters and two helicopters. Olukolade confirmed the destruction of the aircraft, but said the jets were out of commission.
Olukolade said Friday's attackers came across the border from Cameroon, which Nigerian officials say is doing little to stop the extremists using the country as a launchpad for attacks and an escape route. Cameroon says its gendarmes are cooperating and that the two countries coordinate at high-level meetings.
Thousands have died in the 4-year-old insurgency by extremists who say they want Islamic law to govern all of Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation of more than 160 million almost equally divided between a mainly Christian south and predominantly Muslim north. The extremists say Shariah law will halt the corruption and unequal sharing of resources that has kept Nigerians in the northeast among the poorest and most illiterate in Africa despite the country's oil wealth derived from the southern Niger Delta.
The uprising poses the biggest threat to the security and cohesion of Nigeria, the continent's No. 2. economy, since the civil war to create an independent Biafra in the southeast in the 1960s.
Associated Press writer Bashir Adigun contributed to this report from Abuja.