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Mob Frees 200 Prisoners in Nigeria

Nigerian authorities are investigating an attack by an angry crowd Monday on a prison facility in southeastern Onitsha. More than 200 inmates were released by the crowd, suspected to be Biafran separatists.

Top prison and police officials toured the Onitsha prisons to assess the raid. Authorities said the attackers, who belonged to the banned separatist group Movement for the Actualization of a Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) freed more than 200 inmates.

A journalist in Onitsha, Emma Ndukaba, who accompanied the prison and police chiefs on their tour of the facility, said there was a sense of outrage that the security personnel at the prison could not fight off the mob.

"They think it was MASSOB that was behind the thing, but the comptroller-general is saying that his men did not do enough," said Emma Ndukaba. "They could not even shoot a gun, the security that was securing the place; they could not even shoot a gun. So, they are not even talking about whether it is MASSOB. Of course, all fingers point towards that direction. But the issue remains that their men did do enough to stop the people. Only minor people came with guns and they could not even stop them. They could not even shoot gun to scare them. They just ran away and abandoned the place for them to operate."

A MASSOB spokesman, Eddyson Samuel, has rejected the accusation. He said a rival group, the National Association of Road Transport Owners (NARTO), might have been behind the attack.

"If any group of people went to prison to free prisoners, they were not MASSOB members," he said. "When this thing started, it was the NARTO that were causing the problem. So they are the people causing all these crises and troubles in the state. And whenever they are doing these things, they used to move with Biafran flag and people around might think they are MASSOB members. They are not MASSOB members, they are NARTO people."

Officials of the transport union could not be reached to respond to the accusation.

At least 12 people have been killed in clashes that started in the city last Thursday when the police stormed a MASSOB meeting to make arrests. MASSOB had also fought street battles with the local transport union.

The Anambra state governor imposed a curfew during the weekend and appealed for the deployment of soldiers to contain the violence. Residents say Onitsha, a bustling large commercial city, remained calm with soldiers patrolling the streets.

MASSOB campaigns for the peaceful secession of southeastern Nigeria, a region dominated by ethnic Ibos. The group's leader, Ralph Uwazuruike, has been charged with treason and has been in jail since last year.