MAIDUGURI, Nigeria: Boko Haram on Monday launched two separate attacks on state capitals in northeast Nigeria, when two female suicide bombers hit a busy market and fighters launched a major assault on police.
The blasts in Maiduguri and the dawn raid in Damaturu came just days after a deadly mosque attack in the northern city of Kano left at least 120 people dead and hundreds injured.
Estimates of the death tolls varied, with hospital staff saying 16 had died in the suicide blasts, while vigilantes in Damaturu claimed more than 40 Boko Haram gunmen had been killed in fighting.
Only last Tuesday, more than 45 people died in the same Maiduguri market when two other women suicide bombers detonated explosives hidden in their hijabs.
But as the country reeled from the latest bloodshed, Washington revealed that Nigeria has halted US training of its troops to take on the extremists.
Tensions have been rising between the two countries over the Nigerian military’s human rights record and the apparent reluctance of the US to supply it with attack helicopters.
Almost daily atrocities blamed on Boko Haram have brought the northeast of the country to the brink.
Both Maiduguri, which is the capital of Borno state, and Damaturu, the main city in neighbouring Yobe, have been hit repeatedly by Boko Haram.
Two suspected female suicide bombers were arrested in Maiduguri on Wednesday and Thursday, while on Friday, a roadside bomb near another market was defused.
Boko Haram claimed responsibility for a similar raid in Damaturu on October 24, 2013, in which four police buildings were hit in a gun and bomb attack.
Both incidents will add to claims that Nigeria’s government has not done enough to protect civilians from the Islamists, whose insurgency has claimed over 13,000 lives since 2009.
Nigeria’s main Muslim body, the JNI, on Sunday attacked the government for failing to prevent the deaths of ordinary people and called for civilians to act to protect themselves.
In Maiduguri, witnesses said the first explosion happened as a middle-aged woman tried to enter the Monday Market and refused a security check of her bags.
A second woman then tried to get into a nearby shop but as she was denied access detonated her bomb.
Death tolls are notoriously difficult to corroborate in Nigeria and the authorities often downplay numbers.
Borno state police commissioner Clement Adoda said six people were killed, including the two bombers, but one witness said he counted at least 10 dead bodies at the scene.
A source at the Borno State Specialist Hospital said: “We received 16 dead bodies and 25 people with serious injuries.”
Borno, Yobe and neighboring Adamawa were placed under a state of emergency in May 2013 but the special measures have failed to end the violence.
Boko Haram has seized control of more than two dozen towns in all three states and more than 1.5 million Nigerians have been forced to flee their homes, the United Nations said last week.
Nigeria goes to the polls to elect a new president in February next year but the main opposition has voiced concern that the violence will hamper the vote.
In Damaturu, residents in the Gujba Road area of the city were jolted out of bed by the sound of gunshots and explosions at about 4:45 am (0345 GMT) and many fled.
“The gunmen came in numbers. They have burnt down the police barracks…. We have left our home. We are now in the bush. We don’t know what’s going to happen,” said one local, Umar Sada.
The Yobe state police commissioner, Marcus Danladi, described the attack as a “serious situation”. Civilian vigilantes in the city claimed that more than 40 Boko Haram fighters were killed.
Others described the scene as “chaos” as shells fell in the federal polytechnic compound and fierce fighting raged near detention facilities where Boko Haram suspects were being held.
The office of the Yobe state governor, Ibrahim Gaidam, said in a statement that the security forces had repelled the attack.
Gaidam’s spokesman Abdullahi Bego said the governor condemned the assault as “heinous and barbaric”.
“He has also expressed appreciation to the security forces who worked very hard on the ground and from the air to repel the attack,” he added.
The US was one of several powers who offered assistance to Nigeria to help find the 219 schoolgirls who have been held hostage by Boko Haram since April.
But with the teenagers no nearer to being found and the insurgency increasing in intensity, diplomatic ties have become strained.