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Nigerian Authorities Blame Separatist Group for Massive Jailbreak

People walk past burned vehicles in front of a prison in Owerri, Nigeria, April 5, 2021, after hundreds of inmates escaped from the facility.

Nigerian authorities are still searching for at least 1,800 inmates who escaped this week during a prison break in southeastern Imo state. Officials have blamed a regional separatist group, but the group denies responsibility as tensions from the Biafran civil war 50 years ago resurface in the country.

The incident, believed to be the biggest jail break in Nigerian history, happened Monday when gunmen used explosives to blast open the gates and other parts of the Owerri correctional facility. Prison authorities say 1,844 inmates escaped. Only six have returned voluntarily.

There's been no claim of responsibility so far, but Nigerian police authorities have pinned the attack on the secessionist group known as the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB).

IPOB leader Nnamdi Kanu says his group did not carry out the attack that led to Monday’s jailbreak.

Former police commissioner for federal operations Lawrence Alobi says the incident is an affront to the government.

"That is madness, it's not acceptable, it is beastly, it is unpatriotic and it's even criminal. Nigerian citizens should know that they have a duty to prevent crime, protect law and order," Alobi said.

President Muhammadu Buhari called the attack an act of terrorism from London, where he travelled this week for a medical checkup.

Experts say years of unlawful targeting and detention of IPOB members by Nigerian security forces could be the reason behind the attack and others on government facilities and personnel.

Senator Iroegbu, a security analyst, says the government should be careful pointing fingers.

"It is too hasty to blame IPOB when even the government and security agents have somehow shown lack of capacity to anticipate such events. These are some of the issues creating a lot of division and tension across the country. The president and the IG should be cautious in making any statement, labelling and tagging people because it carries weight," Iroegbu said.

Secessionists fought a losing battle to carve the state of Biafra out of southeastern Nigeria in the late 1960s.

Since 2015, IPOB has raised in its profile, making a renewed push for the region’s independence. In January, the group launched an armed security outfit known as the Eastern Security Network (ESN).

While the search continues for the escapees, authorities have imposed curfews in Imo and the neighboring state of Abia.