An estimated 200 people were killed and 10,000 displaced in attacks by armed bandits in the northwestern Nigerian state of Zamfara following military air raids on their hideouts last week.
A spokesperson for Sadiya Umar Farouq, minister of humanitarian affairs, said more than 200 bodies were buried.
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“We are very saddened by this incessant invasion … and we also worried about the displaced persons who are fleeing in their hundreds from their communities,” Nneka Ikem Anibeze said on Sunday.
Farouq called the past week’s attacks in Zamfara state “horrific and tragic,” giving the first official toll after details began filtering out early Saturday.
The minister said more 10,000 people were displaced when “their homes were razed by the bandits while scores are still missing”.
The state government had previously said 58 people were killed in the attacks.
Shooting ‘anyone on sight’
Locals returned to their villages on Saturday to organise mass burials.
The military conducted air attacks on Monday on targets in the Gusami forest and west Tsamre village in Zamfara, killing more than 100 bandits including two of their leaders.
More than 300 gunmen on motorcycles stormed eight villages in the Anka local area in Zamfara on Tuesday and started shooting sporadically, killing at least 30 people.
Attackers also rampaged through 10 villages in Anka and Bukkuyum districts on Wednesday through Thursday, firing at residents and looting and burning homes.
Babandi Hamidu, a resident of Kurfa Danya village, said the assailants were shooting “anyone on sight”.
“The search for more bodies is ongoing because many people are unaccounted for,” Hamidu told AFP news agency.
President Muhammadu Buhari said in a statement on Saturday the military acquired more equipment to track down and eliminate criminal gangs, which have been subjecting people to a reign of terror, including through the illegal imposition of taxes on communities under siege.
“The latest attacks on innocent people by the bandits is an act of desperation by mass murderers, now under relentless pressure from our military forces,” Buhari said.
Buhari added the government will not relent in its military operations to get rid of the armed gangs.
Northwest Nigeria has seen a sharp rise in mass abductions and other violent crimes since late 2020 as the government struggles to maintain law and order.
Last year, bandits made international headlines with a series of high-profile attacks on schools and colleges where they kidnapped hundreds of pupils. Most were released but some of those students are still being held.
Al Jazeera’s Ahmed Idris, reporting from Abuja, said “kidnapping is the fastest growing enterprise in Nigeria,” especially in the largely ungoverned territories in the northwestern part of the country.
Idris said bodies were still being recovered in Zamfara and some appeared to have been mutilated or burned.
“The conflict is becoming more and more deadly as the security forces are struggling to deal with the problem,” Idris said, adding resources are stretched thin as the military is responding to crisis in 34 out of Nigeria’s 36 states.
Herders vs farmers
Bandit violence has its roots in clashes between nomadic cattle herders and sedentary farmers over land and resources. But tit-for-tat attacks have over the years spiralled into broader criminality.
Nigeria’s armed forces said last week they killed 537 “armed bandits and other criminal elements” in the region and arrested 374 others since May last year, while 452 “kidnapped civilians were rescued”.
Bandits loyal to notorious gang leader Bello Turji suffered heavy losses last month in ground-and-air raids on their forest-based camps.
Security analyst Kabir Adamu, with Abuja-based Beacon Consulting Nigeria, told AFP last week’s raids could be in response to military operations.
“Angered by this, and perhaps by the fact that that they were facing certain death, [they] decided to move to other locations and in the course of this they seem to be conducting these attacks,” Adamu said.
Nigeria designated bandits as “terrorist” groups, allowing for tougher sanctions under the “terrorism” prevention act for suspected shooters, their informants, and supporters such as those caught supplying them with fuel and food.
Separately, gunmen on Sunday released 30 Nigerian students who spent nearly seven months in captivity.
The students of Federal Government College in Kebbi, northwest Nigeria, were abducted on June 17 when gunmen stormed their school in Birnin-Yauri.
Local officials did not provide the exact number of those missing but residents had said there were more than 70.