Hundreds of prisoners, including scores of terrorists, were on the run in Nigeria after suspected Islamist militants attacked a prison near the capital, Abuja.
Men armed with explosives shot at the medium-security Kuje prison on the outskirts of Abuja around 10pm Tuesday, freeing nearly 900 of the prison’s 994 inmates, government officials said.
At least 443 of the 879 escapees were still missing as of late Wednesday, said Umar Abubakar, a spokesman for the Nigerian Correctional Service.
A prison guard was killed and three others injured in the attack.
“They came in droves, broke into the prison and released some of the inmates,” Nigerian Defense Minister Bashir Magashi said at a news conference near the prison on Wednesday morning.
Magashi speculated that the gunmen belonged to Boko Haram, but the attack was later claimed by Islamic State. He added: “The situation is under control.”
Later Wednesday, President Muhammadu Buhari visited the prison where senior officials showed him around the facility. He then tweeted that he was “saddened” by the attack and “disappointed” with Nigeria’s intelligence system.
“How can terrorists organize, possess weapons, attack a security facility and get away with it?” asked Buhari.
Witnesses living near the prison facility said the attack lasted more than an hour, with security forces arriving at the scene long after the inmates had escaped.
Iliya Makama, who lives nearby, said: “Around 10 p.m. we heard gunshots for about 40 minutes. Between shots we heard loud explosions.
“After a little over an hour, they ran past my window. At first I was lying on the ground with my wife … There were no sirens, no police or soldiers on helicopter patrol.”
Prison breaks have become more common in Nigeria, where more than 1,800 prisoners escaped from Owerri Prison in southeastern Imo State last year after heavily armed men attacked them with gunfire and explosives.
The attack in Kuje will cement fears about the increasing capacity of armed groups across Nigeria, which have launched increasingly daring attacks near the capital with little to no resistance from overstretched and ill-equipped security forces.
It came hours after gunmen attacked a convoy of Buhari’s security personnel ahead of a planned visit by the president to his home state of Katsina in north-western Nigeria.
On Wednesday, the President’s spokesman said: “Assailants opened fire on the convoy from ambush positions but were repelled by the military, police and DSS personnel escorting the convoy. Two people in the convoy are being treated for minor injuries. All other staff, staff and vehicles made it safely to Daura.”
Unrest has grown in Africa’s most populous country, with security forces fighting on multiple fronts, from a 13-year-old jihadist insurgency in the north-east to terrorist and jihadist “bandit” groups in the north-west kidnapping for ransom and terrorizing rural communities.
The movement of jihadist groups from the Northeast into northern and central Nigeria, forming alliances with other armed groups, has raised growing concerns. In Niger state, local government officials said the groups had indeed taken over communities just a few hundred kilometers from Abuja, taking advantage of the lack of rural security.