DAMATURU, Nigeria (AP) — A 5-hour battle between Islamic extremists and army troops in the capital of Yobe state killed at least 127 people, all but two combatants, according to reports from army and police officers that raise doubts about military claims that they have the upper hand in Nigeria's fight to halt an Islamic uprising in the northeast.
The stench of rotting corpses from the morgue hung over Damaturu Specialist Hospital on Tuesday, where a reporter counted 31 bodies identified as those of extremists. Details still are trickling in about the attack, which militants began at dusk Thursday on an army barracks 20 kilometers (12 miles) outside Damaturu, the capital, where they overpowered the soldiers, seized an armored car, looted the armory and set the barracks ablaze with improvised explosive devices.
The reports were given to Yobe state Gov. Ibrahim Gaidam by military officers as he toured the destroyed sites with a heavily armed escort on Monday. Journalists accompanying the tour heard the reports.
The attackers then moved down the main road into the city where they rammed the armored car through the gates to the headquarters of the Police Anti-Terrorist Squad. There, they burned down three buildings.
While some of the extremists exchanged fire with the police, the armored car and others in all-terrain pickup trucks and on foot went on to shoot up and set fire to the police Criminal Investigation Department offices and four other police offices scattered across the city until they arrived at the Mobile Police Base, where the armored car caught fire and was abandoned.
The militants went to the hospital where they looted drugs and bandages as the medical staff fled in terror, according to doctors at the hospital. This account differs from the official version of events that extremists attacked an army checkpoint along the road from Damaturu to Benisheikh — where militants have killed hundreds of civilians in recent weeks — at around 3 a.m. on Friday. A "firefight ensued and the insurgents were effectively neutralized," according to a statement Monday from the army spokesman in Damaturu, Ibrahim Attahiru.
He said 70 militants were killed there. "Fleeing insurgents" then "regrouped to carry out attacks on Damaturu town," Attahiru said. Security forces killed another 25 insurgents in the city, he said. Col. A. O. Abdullahi told the governor that 22 soldiers were killed in the attacks.
A police officer who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the incident said eight police officers were killed in the shootout at the mobile base. A reporter who visited the hospital mortuary on Sunday saw 17 bodies in police uniform.
On Monday, the morgue held only the bodies of 31 suspected insurgents. Nigeria's military regularly inflates the numbers of militants killed and downplays its own toll. The number of civilians caught up in the fighting also is uncertain, with local newspapers reporting that dozens of travelers were caught in crossfire. A civil servant was shot Saturday by soldiers who accused him of breaking the hastily announced curfew. He died in the hospital on Monday, according to witnesses. Another man whose car broke down at the side of the road was shot and killed, apparently by the insurgents, according to reporters who knew him.
The Damaturu attack — on a city that had been free from assault for months — overshadowed a military success in neighboring Borno state. Aerial bombardments and a ground assault on two "terrorist camps" killed 74 insurgents and wounded several others who fled, according to spokesman Lt. Col. Muhammed Dole. He said two soldiers were wounded in the attacks.
Faul reported from Lagos, Nigeria.