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Suspected jihadists raid Nigeria prison, 879 inmates escape, four dead

Suspected Boko Haram jihadists using guns and explosives have blasted their way into a prison near Nigeria’s capital, freeing hundreds of inmates in an operation to release jailed comrades, the government said Wednesday.

Tuesday night’s brazen attack on the outskirts of Abuja came hours after an ambush on a presidential security convoy in the northwest, in a startling illustration of the struggle Nigeria faces to overcome a security crisis.

Residents reported loud explosions and gunfire late Tuesday near the Kuje medium-security prison just outside the capital.

President Muhammadu Buhari on Wednesday briefly visited the prison, where the burnt-out wreckage of a bus and cars marked the scene of the attack, and yellow police tape was stretched across a destroyed part of the prison perimeter.

“We understand they are Boko Haram, they came specifically for their co-conspirators,” senior interior ministry official Shuaibu Belgore told reporters on a visit to the prison.

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He said around 300 inmates had been recaptured or had surrendered out of about 600 who had escaped initially.

Boko Haram is one of the jihadist groups involved in Nigeria’s grinding 13-year conflict in the country’s northeast.

But Nigerian officials sometimes use “Boko Haram” as a general phrase to refer to jihadists or other armed groups.

– ‘All escaped’ –

Defence Minister Bashir Magashi told reporters that Boko Haram militants had “mostly likely” carried out the attack and that all 64 jailed jihadists in the prison had escaped.

“None of them are inside the prison, they have all escaped,” he said.

Residents reported loud explosions and gunfire late Tuesday near the Kuje medium-security prison just outside the capital.
Residents reported loud explosions and gunfire late Tuesday near the Kuje medium-security prison just outside the capital.

Commanders of another jihadist group Ansaru, including the group’s chief Khalid Barnawi, had also been kept in Kuje prison since their conviction in 2017.

One security official was killed when the gunmen breached the jail using high-grade explosives.

“We heard shooting on my street. We thought it was armed robbers,” a local resident said. “The first explosion came after the shooting. Then a second one sounded and then a third.”

Some prisoners surrendered while others were recaptured with military roadblocks set up around the penitentiary.

Security forces sent back around 19 recaptured inmates in a black van on Wednesday morning, an AFP correspondent at the site said.

Former top police commander Abba Kyari, who was being held in Kuje awaiting trial in a high-profile drug smuggling case, was still in custody, corrections service spokesman Abubakar Umar said.

– ‘Ambush positions’ –

Nigeria’s security forces are battling Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) jihadists in the country’s northeast, where the conflict has killed 40,000 people and displaced 2.2 million more.

The overstretched military is also battling heavily armed criminal gangs known locally as bandits who terrorise communities in the northwest and central states with raids and mass kidnappings for ransom.

In the country’s southeast, troops are dealing with separatist militias who demand an independent territory for the local ethnic Igbo people.

The Kuje prison raid took place soon after gunmen also ambushed an advance presidential security detail preparing for Buhari’s visit to his home state of northwestern Katsina.

Buhari was not in the convoy, but two officials were slightly wounded in the attack. It was not clear who was responsible.

“The attackers opened fire on the convoy from ambush positions but were repelled,” the presidency said in a statement.

Attacks on prisons in Nigeria have happened in the past, with gunmen seeking to free inmates.

More than 1,800 prisoners escaped last year after heavily armed men attacked a prison in southeast Nigeria using explosives.

The attackers blasted their way into the Owerri prison in Imo state, engaging guards in a gun battle before storming the prison. Imo state lies in a region that is a hotbed for separatist groups.