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Bold Boko Haram attack deals sharp blow to Nigerian Air Force

Militants attacked targets in Maiduguri, which had been quiet for six months under emergency rule. The Monitor correspondent offers a detailed account after a visit to northeast Nigeria goes all wrong. 

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In this Aug. 8, 2013 file photo, Nigerian government soldiers provide security from atop of an armored personal carrier during Eid al-Fitr prayers at Ramat square in Maiduguri, northeastern Nigeria.

Sunday Alamba/AP/File

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The bloody Boko Haram insurgency in northeast Nigeria has killed thousands. But the city of Maiduguri, often considered the heart of the Boko Haram group, has not been targeted since the government imposed emergency rule here last last spring. 

But that relative peace ended Sunday. A massive attack destroyed a police station, an Army base, two helicopters, and dozens of vehicles, and left charred debris and shells strewn on the roads for miles. The Nigerian Air Force base appeared to be the main target, but further specific details on the scope of the attack remain unknown.

Monitor correspondent Heather Murdock was in Maiduguri and filed this report from the scene: 

At 10:30 a.m. sirens are blaring. We are about two miles from the airport as an ambulance races toward the city center behind several military vehicles. The road is blocked up ahead. Earlier this morning at the hotel, soldiers told a colleague that the Air Force base was attacked last night. We shouldn’t try to make our flight back to Abuja, the Nigerian capital, he said.

Here, looking now beyond the roadblocks, we see locals in traditional robes leaving the area by foot. We slowly turn the car around and join the heavy traffic heading away from the airport.

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At the press center located in the governor’s compound, several Nigerian journalists rapidly compare notes. One hands me a photocopy of an official statement from the local Borno State government. It says that for the first time since the uprising began in 2009, Maiduguri is under a 24-hour curfew. The reporter says he heard that the Air Force, the airport, a new truck stop, and military checkpoints were attacked early this morning.  Based on the heavy traffic on the roads, no one else knows about the curfew.

More reporters arrive along with tales from the field.  One man lives beyond the blockades near the airport. He saw aircraft smoking, burnt- out pickup trucks, and dead bodies.

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Schools are closed, says one journalist in a checkered shirt, who has a press pass that hangs around his neck.  Several concerned faces look up from their computers. “The schools will take care of the children,” says one reporter, and the parents in the room appear relieved.

A soldier in fatigues carrying a worn AK-47 stops by the press room and jokes with the journalists as he hands out a statement from the military spokesman. It says Boko Haram did attack last night, but everybody should stay calm and stay home because the military is on top of the situation.

All day we hear variations on this question from a young man in the city: “Where are they [Boko Haram] living? That is the question...Not how did they enter [the city].”

Yesterday, the Baga Road International Fish Market, a much-loved place that has suffered many attacks in recent years, was crowded with shoppers and sellers. Locals were quick to tell journalists that Maiduguri is “coming back to life” as four years of insurgency subside. The rural areas of Borno State, they added, do not appear to be faring as well.

Amid busy buyers and sellers at the fish market, a driver from Baga, the scene of several gruesome battles this year, says there was a shootout near the Cameroon border late this week and dozens of people were killed.

By early afternoon, the 24-hour curfew is enforced and the only people on the streets are on foot. Most people out of their homes belong to civilian security groups patrolling the city. 

We cruise down the roads packed into a press bus in the governor’s convoy, counting hundreds of shattered shells and watching smoke rise from burned-out vehicles. We see two charred bodies and smoke rising from buildings.  At a large gas station, a fire still burns near at least three destroyed oil tankers.

Our arrival at the Air Force base clearly enrages the soldiers.  Men in blue Air Force fatigues stream out of the gates, shouting at officials and ordering reporters to get rid of cameras. Guns are shaken and shouts are heard, but eventually the governor and his bodyguards are allowed into the compound.  

We visit a demolished Army base. The tin roof of the barracks is blown off and open space replaces the doors and windows. Dozens of burned vehicles litter the yard.  At the police station, the Borno State governor consoles the police commissioner next to the still smoking station.  “We are going to remain here,” Gov. Kashim Shettima says. “We’re not going anywhere."

Down the road, families describe last night’s attack: They said two Boko Haram members were giving orders in the early hours of the morning and then the shooting began. Some say the Boko commanders were women.  In one neighborhood, locals say the two bodies on the road belonged to Boko Haram soldiers who had been shot off their bicycles.  When their bodies were found, the neighbors threw tires over them and set them on fire. 

They didn't know how many others were killed.

Around 4 p.m. we are back in the center of town and civilian security groups are out in force. Though normally they appear unarmed on major roads, they now carry machetes and sticks.  In the back of the van, the reporters discuss the destruction and wonder how many must have died in the large, coordinated attack. The question remains in a city in relative peace for six months: how the rebels attacked so thoroughly with no warning. 

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