Jenago, Nigeria (Reuters)-Authorities say more than 1,800 prisoners have fled southeast Nigeria after heavily armed gunmen attacked prisons with explosives and rocket-propelled grenades.
The Nigerian police said it believes that behind the attack in Owerri city is a banned separatist group Biafra Indigenous Peoples Organization (IPOB), but a spokesperson for the organization denied involvement.
The separatist movement in the southeast is one of several serious security challenges facing President Muhammad Buhari, including a decade-long Islamic rebellion in the northeast, a series of school kidnappings in the northwest, and piracy in the Gulf of Guinea.
Buhari said that the attack took place in a city near the oil-rich Niger Delta, which is Africa’s largest crude oil exporter and the backbone of the largest economy, and was an “act of terrorism”. He ordered the security forces to arrest the escaped prisoners.
According to the Nigeria Department of Corrections, the attackers attacked the facility at 2:1
The spokesperson said in a statement late on Monday: “The Owerri Prison Center in Imo State was attacked by unknown gunmen and forcibly released a total of 1,844 prisoners.”
Police said the attackers used explosives to blow up the administrative area of the prison and entered the prison yard.
Nigerian police spokesman Frank Mba said: “Preliminary investigations revealed that the assailant was a member of the Prohibited Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB).”
IPOB hopes to gain independence from a region called Biafra in southeastern Nigeria. One million people died in the 1967-70 civil war between the Nigerian government and the separatists there.
In recent months, the security situation in the area has deteriorated. Since January, several police stations have been attacked, a large amount of ammunition has been stolen, and there have been reports of conflicts between the Eastern Security Network (ESN), the paramilitary arm of IPOB, and the military.
However, an IPOB spokesperson told Reuters that the organization did not conduct a prison raid.
“IPOB and ESN were not involved in the attack in Owerri, Imo State. Attacking security personnel or prison facilities is not our task.”
Report by Tife Owolabi in Yenagoa and Onitsha’s Anasere Igboeroteonwu by Camillus Eboh ) Additional reporting in Abuja; Writing by Tom Hogue and Alexis Akwagyiram; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky