In the week since Boko Haram seized Nigeria's far northeastern town of Baga and began raiding nearby villages, militants have killed hundreds of civilians and razed entire communities, local officials say. It may be the one of the sect's deadliest killing sprees since the insurgency started more than five years ago.
Details of the violence still are coming out in places such as Maiduguri, the Borno state capital, where thousands fled. It lies nearly 200 kilometers or 122 miles southwest of Baga. At least 7,000 more fled in the other direction into Chad.
Fisherman Yahaya Takakumi, now sheltering in Maiduguri, spent four days running and hiding in the bush after Boko Haram militants seized Baga on January 3.
"I have not seen four of my children and my elder brother," he said. "Some people said they saw my brother near the village of Daban-Shata the day after the attack, but I now fear for his life because only God can say the number of persons that were killed...."
Perhaps Boko Haram's ‘deadliest act’
Because Boko Haram controls the area and cellphone communications have been cut, local officials could not provide a death toll. Estimates range from the hundreds to 2,000, according to various news media.
Amnesty International on Friday said, based on reports coming from the area,
this could be the Islamist militant group’s “deadliest act in a catalogue of increasingly heinous attacks.”
Takakumi said he, one of his wives and his remaining children walked from Baga to Maiduguri.
Boko Haram seized Baga from Nigerian troops stationed at a multinational military base there. Survivors told VOA that soldiers ran out of ammunition and had to flee for their lives. They said insurgents blocked the roads out of town and then pursued residents fleeing into the bush. Some residents took canoes across Lake Chad or tried to swim.
The killing went on for days in surrounding villages, Takakumi said.
"Scores of people were killed around Lake Chad,” he said, adding that Boko Haram blocked the boat paths. “Any boat or canoe that came along, they killed the occupants."
Other communities ravaged
The senator for northern Borno state told VOA he knows of at least eight other towns or villages around Baga that also had been raided and torched in the past week.
A Nigerian government spokesman said Friday that security forces backed by airstrikes are battling to reclaim Baga.
In Maiduguri, the state government has put up displaced Baga residents in newly built teachers’ quarters. The federal government said it is providing assistance for 2,000 people there.
Recruited by force
The local vigilante group Civilian JTF keeps watch at the camp. A representative said Friday that it had arrested three suspected Boko Haram members hiding among the refugees.
One of them, a 27-year-old named Garba Mohammed, told VOA he took part in the raid on Baga and then fled.
He said Boko Haram militants forced him and 40 other young men to join last year. The Islamist militants rounded them up at a mosque in Baga and "threatened to kill” the young men and their families if they didn’t come, Mohammed said, looking distressed as he spoke.
He said he and others were drugged at the camp, and he was forced to kill or be shot by his commander. He killed six people, he said, adding he finally was able to escape in the confusion during Boko Haram’s raid on Baga.
The Civilian JTF said it continues to investigate.
Human rights activists say Boko Haram has forcibly conscripted hundreds of young men and abducted hundreds of women and girls in the past year.
Kareem Haruna contributed to this report from Maiduguri, Nigeria.