MAIDUGURI, Nigeria — Boko Haram militants dressed as soldiers slaughtered at least 200 civilians in three villages in northeastern Nigeria and the military failed to intervene even though it was warned that an attack was imminent, witnesses said on Thursday.
A community leader who witnessed the killings on Monday said residents of the Gwoza local government district in Borno state had pleaded for the military to send soldiers to protect the area after they heard that militants were about to attack, but help didn't arrive. The killings occurred in Danjara, Agapalwa, and Antagara.
"We all thought they were the soldiers that we earlier reported to that the insurgents might attack us," said the community leader who escaped the massacre and fled to Maiduguri, the Borno state capital.
The militants arrived in Toyota Hilux pickup trucks — commonly used by the military — and told the civilians they were soldiers and that they had come "to protect you all," the same tactic used by the group when they kidnapped more than 300 girls from a school in the town of Chibok on April 15.
After people gathered in the center on the orders of the militants, "they began to shout 'Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar,' then they began to fire at the people continuously for a very long time until all who had gathered were all dead," said the witness, who didn't want to be named out of fear for his safety. Allahu akbar means God is great.
The slaughter was confirmed by both Mohammed Ali Ndume, a senator representing Borno whose hometown is Gwoza, and by a top security official in Maiduguri who insisted on anonymity because he isn't allowed to speak to the media.
It took a few days for survivors to get word of the massacres to Maiduguri because travel on the roads is extremely dangerous and phone connections are poor or nonexistent.
Ndume said the military has assured the Borno state governor that they will send soldiers to the area immediately.
"It is sad that we have to wait till now that people are being killed for government to take action," said Ndume. "Soldiers of the Nigerian army have been overstretched in both human and material capacity."
Calls made to Defense Headquarters spokesman Chris Olukolade's mobile phone didn't connect. An email sent to him seeking comment wasn't answered. Calls made to presidential spokesman Reuben Abati also didn't connect, and he didn't immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
The community leader said some of the others who escaped are trapped in the mountainous area. "They still see the gunmen going about attacking villages and hamlets by setting them on fire," he said.
He said managed to survive because "I was going round to inform people that the soldiers had come and they wanted to address us." As people were fleeing, other gunmen lurked outside the villages on motorcycles and mowed them down, he said.
In another incident, militants attacked Alagarno, a village near Chibok where the girls were kidnapped, and destroyed it, according to Pogu Bitrus, a Chibok community. People heard gunshots as the fighters were approaching and were able to flee, he said.
Nigeria's military has insisted that the big influx of troops and a year-old state of emergency in Borno and two other states has the insurgents on the run. But soldiers have told The Associated Press they are outgunned and outnumbered by the insurgents, don't have bullet-proof vests, are not properly paid and have to forage for food.
The villages attacked on Monday are in the Gwoza local government, a regional political center whose emir was killed in a Boko Haram ambush on his convoy last week. Emirs are religious and traditional rulers who have been targeted for speaking out against Boko Haram's extremism.
Borno Gov. Kashim Shettima traveled on Saturday to Gwoza to pay his respects to the fallen emir and was quoted as saying it was a terrifying ride. A local journalist who was in the convoy that was escorted by 150 soldiers counted at least 16 towns and villages that were deserted along the 135 kilometer (85 mile) route, according to the local media report.
Boko Haram, which wants to establish Islamic state in Nigeria, has been taking over villages in the northeast, killing and terrorizing civilians and political leaders as they make a comeback from a year-long military offensive. Thousands of people have been killed in the 5-year-old insurgency, more than 2,000 so far just this year, and an estimated 750,000 Nigerians have been driven from their homes.