MAIDUGURI, Nigeria — When men wearing military fatigues and carrying weapons showed up in pickup trucks, villagers thought Nigerian soldiers had finally come to protect them from Boko Haram.
But it was a disguise. The gunmen rounded up everyone in the village center and then started shooting.
Altogether, Boko Haram militants slaughtered hundreds of people in three villages in the far northeast corner of Nigeria, witnesses said Thursday, describing the latest attack by the Islamic extremist group that drew international attention for the kidnapping of more than 300 schoolgirls.
A community leader who witnessed the killings on Monday said residents had pleaded for the military to send soldiers to protect the area after they heard militants were about to attack.
The militants arrived in Toyota HiLux pickup trucks — commonly used by the military — and told the civilians they were soldiers and that they had come "to protect you all," the same tactic used by the group when they kidnapped the girls from a school in Chibok on April 15.
"We all thought they were the soldiers whom we earlier reported to that the insurgents might attack us," said the community leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared for his life.
After the militants forced everyone into the village centers, "they began to shout 'Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar,' then they started to fire at the people continuously for a very long time until all who had gathered were dead," he said. Allahu akbar means God is great.
The killings took place in the villages of Danjara, Agapalwa, and Antagara, part of Gwoza district in Borno state. The community leader said he fled to Maiduguri, the Borno state capital.
"They still see the gunmen going about attacking villages and hamlets by setting them on fire," he said.
He said he managed to survive because "I was going around to inform people that the soldiers had come and they wanted to address us." As people were fleeing, other gunmen lurked outside the villages on motorcycles and mowed them down.
The slaughter was confirmed by Mohammed Ali Ndume, a senator representing Borno, and by a top security official in Maiduguri who insisted on anonymity because he isn't allowed to speak to the media.
It took a few days for survivors to get word of the massacres to Maiduguri because travel on the roads is extremely dangerous and phone connections are poor or nonexistent.