DAKAR (Senegal) • Gunmen believed to be members of the Islamist sect Boko Haram rounded up scores of men in mosques in north-east Nigeria on Wednesday evening and began shooting indiscriminately, witnesses said.
Up to 150 people were gunned down in three locations, according to witnesses, making the attacks, if confirmed as the work of Boko Haram, among the bloodiest orchestrated by the extremist group this year.
The massacres took place as men were breaking the daily Ramadan fast in the evening, eating dates in small community mosques in the town of Kukawa in Borno state, the centre of Boko Haram's bloody campaign against the government.
Officials in Borno state suggested that the sect was responding to the belligerent tone of Nigeria's new president, Mr Muhammadu Buhari, who has vowed to wipe out Boko Haram.
He has taken steps to augment the military forces confronting the group - in contrast to his predecessor, Dr Goodluck Jonathan, who was accused of allowing the violent uprising to fester for years.
Indeed, this week, Mr Buhari's vice-president, Mr Yemi Osinbajo, was in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state and a city that during the previous administration rarely, if ever, received visits from top federal officials. Additional troops were deployed in Maiduguri this week to confront the insurgents.
In the latest attacks, gunmen stormed four mosques in Kukawa, a town that was the capital of an ancient Islamic kingdom, killing some 97 people. The gunmen set fire to the mosques, along with dozens of houses in the old town.
In two other, separate attacks, gunmen massacred men in villages near the town of Monguno, the site of a large army barracks, going house to house to separate the men and shooting them, witnesses said. Nearly 50 people were killed in these attacks.
Yesterday, suspected Boko Haram militants killed 11 men overnight in north-eastern Nigeria, dragging them from their homes and shooting them for escaping forced conscription by their group, residents said.
The wave of Boko Haram attacks in the restive northeast was yesterday blasted by Mr Buhari as "inhuman and barbaric".
Earlier military action against Boko Haram in its hideouts in the vast, scrubby Sambisa Forest in southern Borno state may have displaced some of the most vicious members towards areas further north, like Kukawa, according to Borno state officials.
The Nigerian army has claimed in recent months to have retaken most of the towns and villages held by Boko Haram over the last year.
Yet, the group continues to mount regular attacks on civilians, particularly suicide bombings. There were two such bombings outside Maiduguri as the vice-president was visiting.
"Most of the boys who pulled out of Sambisa went to those areas," said Mr Hussaini Monguno, a security adviser to Borno state's governor, referring to Kukawa.
"It is quite worrisome... They want to show they are strong, and still stronger."
NEW YORK TIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE