DAKAR, SENEGAL — More than 700 inmates in the northern Nigeria city of Bauchi were freed Tuesday night in a daring raid by well-armed attackers on a prison where members of an Islamist sect were being held, authorities and witnesses said Wednesday.
A “substantial” number of those freed in the prison attack belonged to the sect, a police spokesman in Bauchi said. The attack came just over a year after the bloody suppression of an uprising by the Islamist sect Boko Haram left more than 800 dead in the region, and suggested that the sect was still active.
“Before we got to the area, they succeeded in freeing 721 inmates,” a police spokesman, Mohammed Barau, said Wednesday. “They went there with sophisticated rifles, and they attacked the prison,” Mr. Barau said. He said one police officer was shot dead, and a total of four people were killed in the attack, including bystanders.
Witnesses Wednesday described a brazen assault by well-armed assailants, largely unhindered by security forces. One witness, Lifidin Bauchi, the local director of Jama’atu Nasril Islam, a national Muslim service organization, said police did not arrive in substantial numbers until hundreds had already fled from the prison and into the streets of the town.
Mr. Bauchi said the attackers were wearing “traditional gowns,” and were “using big, big guns.” He said he had just finished evening prayers in the central mosque, next to the prison, when he heard gunshots.
“I saw two men with big guns shooting directly to the door of the prison,” Mr. Bauchi said. “They surrounded the whole prison. I saw them firing.”
He quoted the assailants as saying they “had not come to kill us, just to collect their followers.” He also said the shooting lasted up to an hour and that the attackers broke down the door of the prison and set fire to cars in the prison yard.
“They were many, and they were well-armed,” he said. “Immediately when they left, the policemen started coming. The police arrived when they had already gone,” Mr. Bauchi said.
Last year’s unrest began in Bauchi, when members of the sect attacked a police station, and 39 were killed. Over a week in late July, police and army forces struck back, concentrating their retaliation on the nearby city of Maiduguri, where Boko Haram was headquartered and where its members lived a life of strict observance. Among the scores killed were Boko Haram’s leader, Mohammed Yusuf, in still-unexplained circumstances while he was in police custody.
The group, whose name is a Hausa expression indicating disgust with Western education, is known to have been angry over the failure to fully apply Islamic law in this predominantly Muslim region of Nigeria.
The state Police Commissioner, Alhaji Danlami Yar’Adua, told reporters in Bauchi late Wednesday that five people in all had been killed, including a soldier, a policeman, two prison warders and a civilian.
One witnesses reported seeing security officers fleeing upon spotting the well-armed attackers.
”They mounted their machine guns in front of the prison yard with impunity, and asked traders around the premises of the prison not to panic,” said Malam Zubairu Abdullahi.
Wednesday, Mr. Barau, the police spokesman, said relative calm had returned to the area, and police had made some arrests.