The number of villagers massacred by Boko Haram jihadis in a remote village in northeastern Nigeria rose to 160 on Wednesday, according to locals, amid official denials over the attack.
Residents of Kukuwa-Gari in Yobe State described how more than 150 of their relatives and neighbors drowned in a river fleeing militants who opened fire on the village on Thursday last week, while another eight were shot dead.
A local official put the death toll at a much lower 50 while the Director of Defence Information, Colonel Rabe Abubakar, was quoted by the private Channels TV news station as saying reports of the incident were “untrue.”
The station did not clarify whether Abubakar was denying the death toll or that the incident took place at all, and attempts by AFP to contact the military were unsuccessful.
The villagers’ count of the dead in Kukuwa-Gari would constitute the largest loss of life in any single Boko Haram attack since President Muhammadu Buhari swept to power on May 29, vowing to crush the insurgency.
Telecommunications in Kukuwa-Gari are almost non-existent, but villagers who fled to nearby settlements said those who returned had buried 160 bodies, while many feared going back while there was no official acknowledgement of the attack.
Alhaji Kankana Sarkin-Baka, leader of a local group of hunters co-opted to fight the insurgency alongside vigilante groups, said 17 fighters had come on motorcycles, including a local Boko Haram emir, or commander.
“They had superior firepower because they were using modern guns while we were using hunting guns. We were outpowered but they were outnumbered,” he told AFP.
He said six of the fighters positioned themselves by the river, blocking the only escape route, and opened fire on fleeing residents, forcing to them to jump into the water.
“This led to the huge death toll we recorded. So far we have buried 160 people. And out of this number only eight bodies had gunshot wounds, which means all the others drowned,” he told AFP.
Sarkin-Baka said the hunters killed 14 of the attackers, including the amir and his deputy, while three escaped with gunshot wounds.
The villagers, who have secured reinforcements of 100 hunters from the state capital Damaturu, say the gunmen were “born and bred” in the area and joined Boko Haram several years ago.
“Up to this moment no troops have deployed. Our major operational challenge is good weapons to effectively counter possible any possible further attack by Boko Haram. All we have are hunting guns,” Sarkin-Baka told AFP.
Kukuwa-Gari resident Modu Balumi, who had fled to neighboring Gombe State, told AFP his sister-in-law and two of her children were among several villagers still missing.
“Honestly, I am not happy with the way the military tried to deny that our village was attacked. Many of us who are yet to return have changed our minds about going back by this stance of the military,” he told AFP.
Boko Haram has waged a violent campaign for a separate Islamic homeland in the northeast which has seen more than 15,000 deaths since 2009.
“The fact that reports of the Kukawa-Gari massacre are only being reported five days after the fact… suggests that there was unlikely any discernible security presence in the region at the time the militant incursion took place,” Ryan Cummings, chief security analyst at South African consultancy Red 24, told AFP.