ABUJA, Nigeria -- Members of Nigeria's security police here in the capital assaulted an unfinished building occupied by squatters on Friday, killing at least seven residents, but officials later said that they had come under fire by militant Islamists.
The claim by the State Security Service revived fears that the militants, members of the Boko Haram sect, were spreading their insurgency from their stronghold in the Muslim north to the heart of the Nigerian state. But it was later contradicted by the accounts of witnesses, residents of the building and survivors of the attack who said the building merely sheltered homeless laborers in a city where rents are high and housing is scarce.
Nigerian security forces frequently fire on and kill civilians, later claiming that the victims were Boko Haram members or that the dead were actually killed by the sect. Northern Nigeria -- particularly the group's stronghold, Maiduguri, and the rural area around it -- has become notorious for such extrajudicial killings by the country's forces, which are never investigated. Hundreds of civilians with no connection to the Islamists are believed to have died in this fashion in Nigeria's four-year war with Boko Haram.
In a statement about Friday's episode in Abuja, Marilyn Ogar, a spokeswoman for the State Security Service, Nigeria's intelligence agency, said officers were looking for an arms cache in the building when they "came under heavy gunfire" by "other Boko Haram elements."
But survivors and residents dismissed those claims, saying the building was owned by an army officer who had warned the squatters to leave by a deadline or be removed by soldiers. Abuja's poorest residents often move into the city's numerous uncompleted buildings where they sleep on mats, often in large numbers.
Early Friday, residents said, they awoke to the sound of gunfire. "They came in six Toyota Hilux vans," said a man who operates one of the city's many passenger tricycles, and who declined to give his name. "Many of us were asleep. They just started shooting and eventually killed seven of us."
Others confirmed that account and denied any ties to the radical sect. "We are no Boko Haram," one of the wounded, Ibrahim Danladi, 20, told the Nigerian online newspaper Premium Times from his hospital bed at Asokoro General Hospital. "I sell pure water, and none of us are Boko Haram. The soldiers just arrived suddenly and started shooting at us."
A security guard at a nearby building, who gave his name as Ishiaku, said Saturday: "They were soldiers. We just started hearing gunfire." He added that "the boys who sleep there never harassed anybody. How can they say they had guns?"
Nigerian security forces launched an offensive against Boko Haram in the north in May and since then have regularly reported that soldiers have killed Islamist fighters or that Boko Haram has massacred civilians. But the claims are difficult to verify because the government has cut off all cellphone coverage in the region for four months, and the killings take place in inaccessible rural areas.
On Thursday, Nigerian officials said Boko Haram members disguised as soldiers had killed dozens outside Maiduguri, in separate attacks. But it was impossible to verify the actual identities of the assailants.
Musikilu Mojeed reported from Abuja, and Adam Nossiter from Dakar, Senegal.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.