Boko Haram jihadist suspects used weapons and explosives to break into a prison near the Nigerian capital, freeing hundreds of prisoners as part of an operation to free imprisoned comrades, the government said on Wednesday.
Tuesday night’s brazen attack on the outskirts of Abuja comes hours after the ambush of a presidential security convoy in the country’s northwest, in a new illustration of the struggle Nigeria is facing to overcome the security crisis.
Residents reported loud explosions and shootings late on Tuesday near the Kuye High Security Prison near the capital.
Outside the prison, the site of the attack was marked with burnt-out wreckage of a bus and a car, and a yellow police tape was stretched over the destroyed part of the prison perimeter.
“We understand that this is Boko Haram, they came specifically for their accomplices,” Shuaibu Belgore, a senior interior ministry official, told reporters during a visit to the prison.
“Now we have extracted about 300 people out of about 600 who came out of prison cells.”
Boko Haram is one of the jihadist groups involved in a tenacious 13-year-old conflict in Nigeria’s northeast.
But Nigerian officials sometimes use “Boko Haram” as a catchphrase to refer to jihadists or other armed groups.
Defense Minister Bashir Magashi told reporters that Boko Haram militants “most likely” carried out the attack and that 64 jihadist prisoners had escaped from prison.
“None of them are in prison, they all escaped,” he said.
Commanders of another jihadist group, Ansaru, including the group’s leader Khalid Barnavi, have also been held in Kuje prison since their convictions in 2017.
One security officer was killed when gunmen broke into the prison using high security explosives.
“We heard shooting in my street. We thought they were armed robbers,” said a local resident. “The first explosion sounded after the shooting. Then came the second, and then the third.
Some prisoners surrendered, while others were recaptured by military roadblocks around the prison.
On Wednesday morning, security forces sent back about 19 detained prisoners in a black van, an AFP correspondent said on the spot.
Abba Kyari, a former high-ranking police chief who was held in Kuja awaiting trial in a high-profile drug smuggling case, is still in custody, according to corrections officer Abubakar Umar.
Nigerian security forces are fighting Boko Haram and Islamic State of West Africa (ISWAP) jihadists in the country’s northeast, where a 13-year conflict has killed 40,000 people and displaced another 2.2 million.
The overburdened military is also fighting well-armed criminal gangs known as bandits that have terrorized communities in the northwest and central states with raids and mass kidnappings for ransom.
In the country’s southeast, troops are dealing with separatist militias who are demanding independent territory for the local ethnic Igbo people.
The Kuje prison raid came shortly after militants also ambushed forward presidential security forces preparing for President Muhammadu Buhari’s visit to his home state in northwest Katsin.
Bukhari was not in the convoy, but two officials were lightly wounded in the attack. It was not clear who was responsible.
“The attackers opened fire on the ambush column, but were repulsed,” the report says.
Attacks on prisons in Nigeria have happened before, when militants tried to free prisoners.
More than 1,800 prisoners escaped last year after heavily armed men attacked a prison in southeastern Nigeria with explosives.
The attackers broke into the Owerri prison in Imo state, engaging in a shootout with guards before storming the prison. Imo State is in a region that is a breeding ground for separatist groups.