Islamist Boko Haram insurgents have overrun much of a north eastern Nigerian town after hours of fighting that has killed scores and displaced thousands of residents, several security sources said on Tuesday.
The Islamists launched an attack on the town of Bama, 70 km (45 miles) from the Borno state capital of Maiduguri, on Monday. They were initially repelled but came back in greater numbers overnight, the sources and witnesses said.
Nigeria’s defence spokesman was not immediately available for comment. The sources said there were heavy casualties on both sides. One security source said as many as 5,000 people fled.
Two months after Islamist militants in Iraq and Syria declared the area they seized an Islamic caliphate, Boko Haram has also for the first time explicitly laid claim to territory it says it controls in parts of northeast Nigeria.
It captured the remote hilly farming town of Gwoza, along the Cameroon border, during fighting last month. The group’s leader Abubakar Shekau in a video declared it a “Muslim territory” that would be ruled by strict Islamic law.
Shekau’s forces have killed thousands since launching an uprising in 2009 to carve an Islamic state out of religiously mixed Nigeria, and are seen as the biggest security threat to the continent’s leading energy producer.
“When we started hearing gunshots, everybody was confused. There was firing form different directions. We just ran to the outskirts of town,” Bukar Auwalu, a trader who fled with his wife, three children and brother, told Reuters by phone.
“There were military helicopters and a fighter jet. We slept in the bush on the outskirts of town.”