MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (AP) — Nigerian soldiers angry about the killing of an officer shot dead more than 30 civilians Monday in a northeastern city long under siege by a radical Islamist sect.
The attack came from soldiers attached to a special military unit on guard in Maiduguri, the spiritual home of the sect known as Boko Haram, in an effort to supposedly protect its citizens from the violence gripping the city. The killings likely will further antagonize a population already alienated by checkpoints, security force harassment and the threat of being killed by soldiers who are targets for the sect's increasingly bloody guerrilla attacks.
An Associated Press reporter in Maiduguri counted the dead while on a tour of the still-smoldering neighborhood Monday afternoon. The journalist saw no weapons or evidence that the dead belonged to the sect. A soldier nearby, who did not identify himself, claimed the attack was a response to a bombing nearby earlier Monday that he said killed a lieutenant.
"They killed our officer!" the soldier shouted. "We had no options!"
The AP reporter also saw that soldiers had set fire to about 50 homes and businesses around the area, which sits near the Nigerian Union of Journalists state office and other buildings in Maiduguri. It appeared the soldiers attacked the area using assault rifles and heavy machine guns mounted on armored personnel carriers. Rounds shot from the heavy machine guns destroyed cars and set roofs on fire, which razed buildings and caused damage at a two-story shopping complex.
The journalist accompanied Zanna Umar Mustapha, the deputy governor of Borno state, on the tour. State officials declined to comment about the killings and urged those traveling with the convoy not to take photographs of the destruction out of fear of further alienating those living in the region.
Nigeria's military has been accused of committing so-called "extrajudicial killings" while in pursuit of the Boko Haram sect. The military now routinely claims massive operations with dozens of people killed, always referred to as Boko Haram members or sympathizers, announcements that cannot be independently verified. The military also downplays its own casualties suffered during the operations.
Lt. Col. Sagir Musa, a spokesman for the military force in the city, declined to immediately comment about the retaliatory attack. Earlier in the day, he had said that two soldiers were wounded in the bombing. Col. Mohammed Yerima, a military spokesman in Nigeria's capital, Abuja, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday night.
The killing of civilians comes as Boko Haram continues its bloody guerrilla campaign against Nigeria's weak central government. The sect, whose name means "Western education is sacrilege" in the Hausa language of Nigeria's north, is blamed for killing more than 690 people in drive-by killings and bombings this year alone, according to an AP count. The sect has demanded the release of all its captive members and has called for strict Shariah law to be implemented across the entire country.
The sect has killed both Christians and Muslims in their attacks, as well as soldiers and security forces. Nigeria's military has claimed it has killed a number of the sect's senior leadership in recent days, including operational commanders and the sect's spokesman, who used the nom de guerre Abul Qaqa. However, the sect's leader, Abubakar Shekau, has eluded capture and continues to make Internet videos that taunt and threaten further violence against Nigerian government officials and security forces.
Diplomats and Western security officials say Boko Haram has loose links to African terror groups al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and al-Shabab of Somalia.
The killing of members of the sect's senior leadership comes as the group recently changed some of its tactics and attacked more than 30 mobile phone towers throughout northern Nigeria, disrupting communications in a nation reliant on cellular phones.
Meanwhile, authorities blamed the sect for the shooting death Sunday of a Chinese national in a town outside of Maiduguri.
Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell in Lagos, Nigeria, contributed to this report.