MAIDUGURI, Nigeria: Boko Haram militants launched a daring raid on the military in the northeast Nigerian city of Maiduguri overnight, prompting a 24-hour curfew that shut airspace and cut off roads, the army, state government and eyewitnesses said.
Local residents said that hundreds of heavily armed Islamist gunmen besieged an air force and army base, destroying aircraft, razing buildings and setting shops and petrol stations ablaze in a deadly rampage.
The attack, which closed Maiduguri's civilian airport and roads into and out of the city, comes after military claims that the banned group had been successfully pushed out of urban centres into more remote, rural areas of Borno state.
Boko Haram has previously launched massive, coordinated attacks on the security services in Borno but the reported scale of the latest strike could make it one of the biggest against the military in Maiduguri in many months.
In 2009, militants battled the security forces in the city for several days, leaving more than 800 dead.
"I saw two air force helicopters burnt while in the whole of the 79 Composite Group (of the Nigerian Air Force) few buildings are still standing. Most of the structures have been attacked and destroyed," said one man, who lives nearby, of Monday's attacks.
"At the 33 Artillery (battalion of the Nigerian Army), the terrorists have destroyed the barracks and took away an armoured (personnel) carrier but left it along the highway.
"We heard women and children in the barracks crying and wailing. At the gate, I saw some vehicles destroyed and the checkpoint there in shreds," said the man, a local government official, who asked to remain anonymous.
The man, who said he watched the attacks unfurl with his wife from his house, added that two people had been shot dead.
There was no immediate confirmation of fatalities or other casualties from the authorities.
"Frankly speaking, if the insurgents had wanted, they could have killed all of us... because they came in large numbers... some with explosives, some with rocket-propelled grenades and some with AK-47 rifles," he added.
The Borno state government and the military both confirmed the attack and the curfew.
But the Nigerian Army's spokesman in Maiduguri, Colonel Muhammed Dole, said the Boko Haram fighters had been "successfully repelled" and had suffered "serious casualties", without specifying numbers.
The areas around the airport were "calm and under control", Dole said, adding: "Our troops supported by the Nigerian Air Force aircrafts are presently pursuing the terrorists towards the Maiduguri-Benisheik road."
Nigeria's government imposed a state of emergency in Borno and two other northeast states in May, cutting phone links in a move designed to block militants from coordinating attacks.
Details of the ongoing conflict have as a result been difficult to verify.
The latest violence began at around 3:00 am (0200 GMT) and included bomb and gun attacks, said an AFP correspondent in the city, where Boko Haram was founded more than 10 years ago.
"They entered Maiduguri from the bush, chanting 'Allahu Akbar' (God is great)," said one Nigerian intelligence officer, adding that some insurgents had been detained, without specifying numbers.
Ambulances were seen moving out of the air force base and the adjoining Ngomari neighbourhood, according to the correspondent. Roads in the city were deserted and the sound of sirens from military vehicles could be heard, he added.
The insurgents had also ambushed military checkpoints on the outskirts of the city, while shops and petrol stations were also said to have been set on fire, local residents said.
State government secretary Baba Ahmed Jidda called for calm, disclosing that only emergency service vehicles were allowed to move during the curfew, which would be lifted "as soon as the situation improves".
Monday's attacks came after suspected Boko Haram militants killed 24 people in two separate strikes in Borno state last week and following a military pledge to tighten security in border regions due to fears of Christmas and New Year attacks.
Boko Haram, whose name translates from the Hausa language of northern Nigeria as "Western education is sin", wants to impose a strict form of Islamic law or sharia in the region and has been blamed for thousands of deaths since 2009. (AFP)