LAGOS, Nigeria -- Islamic militants who have triggered international outrage over the kidnapping of more than 270 Nigerian schoolgirls opened fire on a busy marketplace, killing hundreds of people in a new spasm of violence in the country's northeast.
The attack escalates Nigeria's growing crisis from a campaign of bombings, massacres and abductions being waged by the Boko Haram terrorist network in its bid to impose an Islamic state on Africa's most populous nation.
As many as 300 people were killed in the assault late Monday on the town of Gamboru Ngala on Nigeria's border with Cameroon. The extremists opened fire on a marketplace bustling with shoppers taking advantage of the cooler nighttime temperatures in the semi-desert region, then rampaged through the town for 12 hours, setting houses ablaze and shooting those who tried to escape.
The attack and hundreds of casualties were confirmed by Borno state information commissioner Mohammed Bulama, who spoke to The Associated Press by telephone Wednesday.
Nigerian federal Sen. Ahmed Zannah blamed fighters of the Boko Haram terrorist network that has claimed responsibility for the April 15 kidnapping of 276 teenage girls from their boarding school in Chibok, in northeastern Borno state. The insurgents threatened to sell the young women into slavery in a video seen by AP.
Outrage over the missing girls and the government's failure to rescue them brought angry Nigerian protesters into the streets this week in an embarrassment for the government of President Goodluck Jonathan, who had hoped to showcase the country's emergence as Africa's largest economy as it hosted the Africa meeting of the World Economic Forum, the continent's version of Davos.
Offers of international assistance have poured in, with the Obama administration announcing Tuesday it was sending personnel and equipment to help Nigerian security forces in their search for the girls in the vast Sambisa Forest. Mr. Jonathan confirmed that he has accepted the American assistance, which the Pentagon said Wednesday will help with communications, logistics and intelligence planning.
As the Obama administration on Wednesday began preparing to deploy a team of military and civilian advisers to aid the search for abducted Nigerian schoolgirls, members of Congress pressed for a more muscular response against the militant Islamist group.
Officials in Washington said a team of fewer than 10 U.S. military personnel and civilian colleagues from intelligence and law enforcement agencies were expected to arrive in the Nigerian capital within days to stand up a "coordination cell" of advisers with technical and logistics expertise.
Officials at the Pentagon said they did not anticipate U.S. ground troops would be deployed to join the search and noted that no American surveillance assets have been brought to bear yet.
Prominent members of Congress called for a far more robust U.S. role. Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee said he would convene a hearing to "examine the administration's response to the abhorrent and appalling kidnappings." He called on the administration to develop a "long-term strategic, multifaceted approach to help Nigeria combat Boko Haram."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said in a statement that dispatching U.S. advisers should be "just the first step." Ms. Feinstein, who heads the Senate intelligence committee, added that she would "support whatever actions are necessary to locate, capture and eliminate the terrorists responsible for this reprehensible act."
The Nigerian government, which in this past has played down the strength of Boko Haram, has publicly welcomed this week's offers of assistance from Washington. In the past, however, Mr. Jonathan's administration has been unwilling to heed U.S. advice and accept offers of support to combat the rise of Islamist militancy in the country's northeast, analysts said.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, James Entwistle, met Wednesday with Nigeria's national security adviser to start making a formal assessment of the capabilities Washington could bring to bear.
Johnnie Carson, who was assistant secretary of state for African affairs until last year, said the United States could share satellite data to help track the movements of the fighters, which would mirror assistance it has contributed to the international hunt for elusive rebel leader Joseph Kony in eastern Africa.
The Obama administration has been critical of the military approach of the Jonathan government, which is dominated by Christians from the country's south, in dealing with the insurrection in the predominantly Muslim north.
Washington has advocated a wider economic and social justice agenda to counter the dogmatic Islamists and increase national loyalty among disaffected northern Nigerians. Mr. Jonathan has mostly ignored the advice, Mr. Carson and others said.
Britain and China also announced Wednesday that Nigeria has accepted their offers of help, and France said it was sending in a "specialized team" to help with search and rescue of the girls.
The kidnapping has ignited a viral social media campaign under the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls that has brought renewed attention to Boko Haram's campaign of violence. On Wednesday, first lady Michelle Obama joined in, tweeting, "Our prayers are with the missing Nigerian girls and their families. It's time to #BringBackOurGirls."
Boko Haram's 5-year-old Islamic uprising has claimed the lives of thousands of Muslims and Christians, including more than 1,500 people killed in attacks so far this year.
The Washington Post contributed.