A large number of gunmen launched a predawn raid on the Police Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) detention centre in Abuja yesterday, killing two policemen and freeing dozens of high-profile detainees.
Authorities said 25 of the 30 detainees who were let loose had been recaptured, but sources said the number of those freed was much higher and most of them are still on the run.
SARS is infamous for being a centre of gross human rights abuses, and in February Inspector General of Police Mohammed Abubakar said SARS operatives had turned into killer squads.
Weeks ago, Amnesty International said at least 100 Boko Haram suspects were detained at the SARS detention facility in Abuja, facing torture and other forms of abuses.
There were fears in Abuja yesterday that many suspected sect members might have been freed and remained on the loose.
But the Police Headquarters issued a statement in the afternoon saying no terrorism suspects escaped during the "repelled" attack. The statement by spokesman Frank Mba confirmed the death of two officers and recapture of 25 of the 30 who escaped, as well as arrest of two suspected attackers.
'Enough to sack a platoon'
Sources in the Police told Daily Trust that the attackers came "armed to the teeth" and laid siege on the detention facility, firing at the police guards who were caught by surprise.
Some of the gunmen scaled the fence of the SARS place, which is located in a heavily guarded zone of Garki, Abuja, just behind the Nigeria Security Printing and Minting Company. The FCT police command and the headquarters of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) are also located nearby.
Other gunmen forced their way through the gates and set free all detainees whose number run well over a hundred, the sources told Daily Trust.
A police officer said the attack was launched "with heavy artillery enough to sack a platoon" and the attackers "seemed well organized."
Residents of the area said they heard gunshots for a couple hours through the night.
A source said the attackers appeared to have acquired detailed information about the facility including the location of the main cell, the number of guards in each location and the time and day when security is likely to be relaxed.
It was not clear why the gunmen attacked the center but a security source said the motive might have been to free some suspected Boko Haram members.
However, the Police authorities gave a different account of the incident.
"In the early hours of today, 26th November, 2012, at about 2am, unknown gunmen in large number attacked the premises of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of the Federal Territory Police Command. Policemen on duty responded swiftly and engaged the gunmen in a gun battle that lasted for some minutes, at the end of which the gunmen were successfully repelled," said Frank Mba, who is the deputy public relations officer at the Police Force Headquarters.
"However, in the confusion that ensued, about 30 suspects in the detention facilities of SARS broke out of the cells and attempted to escape. Tactical and coordinated efforts to re-arrest the fleeing suspects yielded instant result. So far, twenty five (25) of the suspects have been re-arrested, while five (5) suspects originally being held in relation to robbery related offences are currently at large. Two (2) Policemen died during the operation while two (2) of the attackers have been arrested.
"It needs to be emphasized here that no suspect held for terror related charges, escaped from SARS detention facilities. No explosive or IED-related materials were used in the botched attack."
When journalists asked Mba if any group had claimed responsibility for the attacked, he said "not to our knowledge."
Soon after the attack, roads leading to the SARS office were cordoned and journalists were denied access into the centre.
Yesterday's attack on the police detention centre came a day after the suicide bombing of a military church at the Jaji Military Cantonment near Kaduna in which at least 15 people died.