A radical Muslim sect used assault rifles to free more 750 prisoners in an armed attack on a Nigerian prison.
The raid raised new fears about violence in the oil-rich nation just months before elections.
The attack last night by the Boko Haram sect left the prison in ruins and showed the group had access to the sophisticated weapons it needed to overpower prison guards.
Now the group seeking to impose strict Islamic law on Nigeria may want to take on the government directly, potentially bring a new wave of violence to Africa’s most populous nation.
The attackers went cell to cell at the prison in Bauchi, breaking open locks and setting fires before escaping during the confusion with 100 of the inmates who were followers.
Five people – a soldier, a police officer, two prison guards and a civilian - died in the attack and six others remained in critical condition.
Members of Boko Haram – which means “Western education is sacrilege” in the local Hausa language – rioted and attacked police stations and private homes in July 2009, triggering a violent police and military crackdown during which more than 700 people died. More than 120 followers arrested in the wake of the attacks last year were being held at the Bauchi prison pending trial.
Police believe the followers freed by the attack are now hiding in the mountains surrounding the pasturelands of the rural region.
“We have provided watertight security to hunt members of this group that we believe have not gone far,” said Mohammed Barau, an assistant superintendent of police.
Bauchi remained calm today, as paramilitary police guarded the front of the damaged prison.
Police and military units added checkpoints along roads heading out of the city in hopes of catching escapees.
Boko Haram has campaigned for the implementation of strict Shariah law. Nigeria, a nation of 150 million people, is divided between the Christian-dominated south and the Muslim-held north. A dozen states across Nigeria’s north already have Shariah law in place, though the area remains under the control of secular state governments.
In recent months, rumours about Boko Haram rearming have spread throughout northern Nigeria. A video recording released in late June showed a Boko Haram leader calling for new violence as the one-year anniversary of their attack neared. Meanwhile, police believe motorcycle-riding members of the sect are killing policemen in the region.
The violence also comes as Nigeria’s January 22, 2011 presidential election nears. President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian who took over after the death of elected Muslim leader Umaru Yar’Adua, has yet to say whether he will run for office.
If he does, it could anger the country’s Muslim elite, who believe Yar’Adua would have won a second term under a power-sharing agreement in the nation’s ruling party. Now Mr Jonathan faces new pressure in trying to put down the sect without alienating Muslims or allowing security forces to conduct a violent reprisal like they did in 2009.