BAGA, Nigeria — Fighting between Nigeria's military and Islamic extremists killed at least 185 people in a fishing community in the nation's far northeast, officials said Sunday, an attack that saw insurgents fire rocket-propelled grenades and soldiers spray machine-gun fire into neighborhoods filled with civilians.
The fighting in Baga began Friday and lasted for hours, sending people fleeing into the arid scrublands surrounding the community on Lake Chad. By Sunday, when government officials finally felt safe enough to see the destruction, homes, businesses and vehicles were burned throughout the area.
The assault marks a significant escalation in the long-running insurgency Nigeria faces in its predominantly Muslim north, with Boko Haram extremists mounting a coordinated assault on soldiers using military-grade weaponry. The killings also mark one of the deadliest incidents ever involving Boko Haram.
Authorities had found and buried at least 185 bodies as of Sunday afternoon, said Lawan Kole, a local government official in Baga.
Officials could not offer a breakdown of civilian casualties versus those of soldiers and extremist fighters. Many of the bodies had been burned beyond recognition in fires that razed whole sections of the town, residents said. Those killed were buried as soon as possible, following local Muslim tradition.
Brig. Gen. Austin Edokpaye did not dispute the casualty figures. Edokpaye said Boko Haram extremists used heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades in the assault, which began after soldiers surrounded a mosque they believed housed members of the Islamic network. Extremists earlier had killed a military officer, the general said.
He said extremists used civilians as human shields during the fighting — implying that soldiers opened fire in neighborhoods where they knew civilians lived.
"When we reinforced and returned to the scene the terrorists came out with heavy firepower, including (rocket-propelled grenades), which usually has a conflagration effect," he said.
However, local residents who spoke to an Associated Press journalist said soldiers purposefully set the fires during the attack.