Maiduguri — For over 20 hours between Tuesday and yesterday, there was a gun battle in Maiduguri between the Joint Task Force (JTF) and members of the Jama'atu Ahlil Sunnati Lidda'awati Wal Jihad, better known as Boko Haram. Daily Trust reports that the result of the gun duel was devastating because residents said there was "mass casualty" on both sides.
Witnesses said the confrontation, which started on Tuesday with terrifying sound of eight bomb blasts, has left "unforgettable scars on the civilian population" in many settlements in the affected areas.
During the ensuing crisis, many people were reportedly killed, houses, shops and vehicles vandalized and freedom of movement curtailed.
Residents said they could only compare the incident of the last two days with what transpired in July 2009, when federal troops had days of intense battle with followers of Mohammed Yusuf, the leader of the sect, who was also killed during the crisis.
"Members of the Yusufiyya movement came out in large number, over 40 of them. They looked fearless and ready to die. They launched the first assault on JTF operatives around 4.30pm at Lawan Bukar area on Tuesday," a witness in the area, who saw how the trouble started, said.
Our correspondents report that the offensive by the suspected gunmen marked the beginning of the ravaging battle which prompted soldiers to cordon off all the roads and alleys leading to the red spots, including the palace of the Shehu of Borno.
Findings revealed that the complete blockage of the areas lasted till around 11am yesterday.
Though the JTF had at a press conference yesterday declared that 15 suspected members of the Boko Haram were killed during the operation, and that there were no civilian casualties, residents of Abbaganaram, Gwange, State Low Cost, Lamisula, Kula Gumna, Hausari, Tashar Gwoza and Lawan Bukar areas said more than 30 civilians were killed and many others injured.
"While peeping out from the window of my room, I saw five military men in uniform on the ground," Mohammed Ali Gana, a resident of Budun said. "I also saw when some pick up vehicles took away some soldiers with blood stains around 9pm yesterday (Tuesday), he said.
Daily Trust investigation revealed that already, all the areas affected by the clampdown have recorded an exodus of people, many of them going away with their personal effects such as mattresses, cooking utensils and even domestic animals.
"It is painful we have to leave our houses this morning (yesterday) because we survived last night true the special grace of Allah," Halima Adama, a mother of four said. She said her husband said he was not willing to go.
"He said he rather die than to leave the house he built with his sweat...I have to leave with my children because I don't want them to be killed," she said. She said she was on her way to Mallam Fatori, a border town between Nigeria and Niger.
Journalists did not have the opportunity to go deep into the crisis-riddled settlements because up till the time of filing this report, fierce looking soldiers, SSS, police and other security agencies were still closely guarding the areas.
Colonel Victor Ebhaleme, the Field Operations officer of the JTF, said during the press conference that only one soldier was injured during the fight. He acknowledged that this is the first time in recent months that suspected members of the Boko Haram attempted to confront the JTF. He debunked claims by residents that the military had suffered heavy casualty while many civilians were killed and others wounded.
He said: "The JTF wishes to inform the public that at about 4pm on 5th June, 2012, some members of the Boko Haram group attempted to launch simultaneous attacks on Maiduguri metropolis. Fifteen Boko Haram members were killed in the encounter and five arrested," he said.
Colonel Victor later displayed cache of arms which, he said were recovered from the suspects as well as during the cordon and search. They include: seven AK47 riffles, one Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG), 12 magazines, over 2,000 rounds of ammunitions, two cylinders for improvising bombs, one revolver pistol with 30 rounds of ammunitions.
He said seven explosives were successfully detonated by the bomb disposal unit of the JTF after they were allegedly concealed in many targeted locations.
Asked how they recovered the weapons, Victor said: "It was a military operation. We recovered some of them in Gwange, some behind the Shehu's palace (Budun) and some at Bayan Kwatas (Railway area). You know that (area) is where they (Boko Haram) stayed...that is their route, so we waited for them and as they were coming, we were just picking them," he said.
When told that residents are claiming that some of the suspects killed were civilians and under-aged children, Colonel Victor said, "we saw reasonable people, we saw youth."
On the allegation of burning of houses and vehicles of innocent residents, he said, "it is a lie; they (residents) would call and tell you anything, their own version of things. If they said houses have been burnt, let us go round the town and show me the houses that were burnt," he said.
"The smoke you saw billowing was because we removed some IEDs because there are some areas which we could not enter yesterday (Tuesday). These people (gunmen) had laid explosives in some of the places they intended to attack as such we had to hold those places tight until this morning and detonated the explosives", he also said.
He said the encounter with the suspected gunmen was not over. "As I am talking to you now, the Boko Haram have told people to leave Gamboru Market and since they are planning to attack, we are also planning to attack them," he said.
He debunked claims that the JTF was forcing people to leave their houses. "How can we tell people to leave when we are here to protect you. We are strangers here and our mission is to see that peace is restored in Borno State," he said.
"The deputy governor has gone to the area and saw things for himself. Even the Shehu was misled; they told him that many houses had been burnt."
When asked when the war will finish as people are apprehensive of seeing the military on the streets, he said:"We are not at war. If they (Boko Haram) want war, let them come out and see what will happen. They cannot face conventional military. Our success of yesterday was because they summoned courage and came out. They don't know that we have intelligence and our intelligence is more proactive now".
Daily Trust reports that the renewed fighting between the JTF and the suspected gunmen was sparked off on Friday June 1, 2012 at Bogobiri area of the metropolis when a newly wedded middle aged man was slaughtered late in the night.
A day after, two young men, whose house shared fence with the family house of Governor Kashim Shettima, were also slaughtered. Up till today, no group has claimed responsibility for the killing. And on Tuesday, dozens of people around Lawan Bukar area started moving out of their houses, alleging that the JTF had ordered them to leave.
For now, hundreds of people have deserted their houses even as vehicular movement has been restricted while countless checkpoints, no go areas and panic have taken over Maiduguri.
"Members of the public are advised not to panic but to go about their businesses. JTF will continue to provide adequate security to the public in Maiduguri," Colonel Victor, however, said.