DAKAR, Senegal -- One of the deadliest clashes between Islamist insurgents and security forces in northern Nigeria has destroyed much of a fishing town on the shores of Lake Chad, killed more than 180 people and highlighted the brutal tactics of Nigerian soldiers in combating the nearly four-year uprising.
Almost 2,000 homes were burned in the exchange between militants of the Boko Haram group and the military on Friday, said Gov. Kashim Shettima of Borno State, where the forces clashed over four hours in the town, Baga. Some residents were killed in the fierce gun battle, and others died in a conflagration when their thatched-roof homes were set alight, Mr. Shettima said Monday, having visited the town on Sunday after the fighting died down.
The cause of the fire was in dispute. The military said militants set the homes on fire by using rocket-propelled grenades. Some residents, though, accused soldiers of starting the fires deliberately to root out the extremists.
Baga lies at the remote northeastern edge of Nigeria, a lightly governed area of high penetration by Boko Haram militants who are easily able to slip across borders into neighboring Chad and Cameroon. There is also a military presence in the town, and the clash between militants and soldiers may have been set off when Boko Haram attacked residents who were watching a soccer match on an open-air television, said an expert on the region, Kole Shettima, who is chairman of the Center for Democracy and Development, a research organization in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, and no relation to the governor.
Soldiers responded to the attack, Mr. Shettima said, and civilians in the town paid the price, as they often do in northern Nigeria. The soldiers "opened fire, ransacked houses, and killed who they killed," he said.
The governor agreed that the clash was a heavy one. "There was a very serious exchange of gunfire between the terrorists and the military," the governor said. "The terrorists used very sophisticated weaponry."
Witnesses in Baga said soldiers went on a rampage and shot civilians. Hundreds of residents fled into the surrounding bush, people in Baga said. Unusually, even the governor said the soldiers were partly to blame for the high death toll. Nigerian officials usually avoid blaming the military.
"Boko Haram and the military are both guilty," Governor Shettima said. "I don't want to entirely lay the blame on Boko Haram. They are both complicit in the crime. The duty of the military is to protect the lives and property of the people."
The Boko Haram militants "are everywhere," said the governor, whose state is the home base of the insurgency. The state capital, Maiduguri, is where the Boko Haram uprising against the Nigerian government began in the summer of 2009. "There is no place that is insulated from their presence," the governor said.
Brig. Gen. Austin Edokpaye, the local commander, laid the blame squarely on Boko Haram, saying the militants used civilians as human shields during the attack. The general said his men had been attacked at a mosque used by militants to store arms.
"It was around that mosque that our men were attacked, with several of them injured, and an officer killed," the general said. "When we reinforced and returned to the scene, the terrorists came out with heavy firepower," including rocket-propelled-grenade launchers.
Yahaya Ibrahim contributed reporting from Maiduguri, Nigeria.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.