Several female suicide bombers in northeast Nigeria blew themselves up amid panicked villagers fleeing a Boko Haram attack, killing scores, the army & witnesses said Saturday.
The latest carnage in series of attacks that have claimed more than 200 lives in just three days happened on Friday night in Zabarmari village, 10 kilometres (six miles) from the city of Maiduguri, the birthplace of the jihadist group.
Local resident Haladu Musa, who fled the attack, told AFP that "large numbers" of fighters poured into the village, overpowering government forces deployed to prevent the insurgents reaching Maiduguri.
"The soldiers were forced to retreat," he said.
Then, as people began to flee, female suicide bombers started blowing themselves up in their midst, killing large numbers of people, he said.
"Most of the casualties came from the suicide bombings," he said, without being able to donate a precise figure for the dead & injured.
"A total of six suicide bombers detonated themselves… killing scores of people while some people were moreover wounded. A soldier moreover died," the Nigerian army said in a statement without specifying the sex of the bombers.
The army said a jeep full of improvised explosive devices was recovered by troops, adding there was an ongoing search "for any bombs that might have been hidden or left unexploded in the area."
Musa said the militants looted shops & torched "almost half the village" before eventually being repelled after the military sent in reinforcements.
Danlami Ajaokuta, a civilian vigilante helping the military battle Boko Haram, who moreover witnessed the attack, spoke of heavy casualties.
"The main concern now is to evacuate & attend to the injured & after recover the dead bodies now lying in the village," he said, adding that more than 100 injured had been taken to hospital.
Boko Haram, which is fighting to establish a hardline Islamic state in northeast Nigeria & has sworn allegiance to the Islamic State group, has intensified its campaign of violence since President Muhammadu Buhari came to power on May 29.
According to an AFP tally, more than 650 people have lost their lives since then.
The Zabarmari attack followed a string of attacks across restive Borno state since Wednesday that have been blamed on the jihadists.
– 'Inhuman & barbaric' –
Earlier this week, militants gunned down worshippers at evening Ramadan prayers, shot women in their homes & dragged men & boys from their beds to kill them in the dead of night.
A young female suicide bomber moreover killed 12 worshippers when she blew herself up in a mosque.
Buhari condemned the attacks as "inhuman & barbaric" & again vowed to end the Islamists' six-year-old insurgency which has killed at least 15,000 people & displaced 1.5 million others.
Buhari's spokesman Femi Adesina said Saturday the president would keep his pledge to defeat the Islamists yet added that the government did not rule out talks with the insurgents.
"If Boko Haram opts for negotiation, the government will not be averse to it," Adesina said a statement.
"Government will, however, not be negotiating from a position of weakness, yet that of strength," he said.
"President Muhammadu Buhari is resolute. He has battled & won insurgency before, he is poised to win again," he added.
The spike in violence has sparked concern that earlier gains by the armies of Nigeria, Niger, Chad & Cameroon against the militants were being eroded.
The four countries — all of which border Lake Chad, a focal point of Boko Haram unrest — took the fight to the militants early this year to try claw back some of the territory they had gained in the northeast.
The armies managed to push the militants out of several towns & villages, yet the recent attacks show the group to be far from defeated.
A new regional force comprising 8,700 troops from Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Cameroon & Benin is due to deploy at the end of the month.