MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (AP) — Two attacks by suspected members of a Nigerian Islamic sect have killed at least 20 members of a vigilante group out to fight the sect, residents and an official said Tuesday.
Insurgents crept up on six members of the group known as the Civilian Joint Task Force who were sleeping in a northeastern village. The suspected insurgents then shot them Monday night, a military official said. Four gunmen carried out that attack, said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not permitted to speak to the press.
"The attack took place in the border town of Damasak, 187 kilometers (116 miles) away from Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state and birthplace of the Boko Haram ideology," he said. "The report we got from Damasak confirmed that the six members of the vigilante group were also jewelry vendors who took time off to attend the weekly Damasak Market to sell their wares," he said, adding that the sect members then trailed them to where they were sleeping.
The deaths were confirmed by Civilian-JTF official Abubakar Malum, who said the men ranged in age from 20 to 36 years old.
An Associated Press reporter saw the bodies were packed up in a pick-up truck on Tuesday at one of JTF's headquarters in Maiduguri.
The attack came less than two days after suspected Boko Haram members killed 14 young vigilantes in neighboring Bama, just 87 kilometers (54 miles) from Maiduguri, the military official said.
The attackers stormed the town disguised in military uniforms and "they used knives instead of guns to prevent the military from hearing the gunshots," and decapitated the young men, he said.
Local grocer Masta'a Ajimi, who claimed to have escaped from Bama on Monday morning after spending the night in the bushes, said "we thought they were real soldiers but later noticed they were Boko Haram. They were armed and they were many, I had to escape through the bush after seeing how they were forcefully slitting people's necks." This new strategy was also used in an attack last week in Dumba village in Borno state.
Bama's local council chairman, Baba Shehu Gulumba, earlier told journalists that insurgents "disguised as soldiers lured the youths into a trap." He said nine others were wounded.
"They were on guard duty when the sect members dressed in military camouflage came and told them that they were needed at a meeting nearby," he said. "When they had been lured away from their duty posts they were then attacked and killed."
The Civilian-JTF group has taken over in the search for the insurgents in the troubled city of Maiduguri, and most Boko Haram members have since relocated to the surrounding bushes though they continue to kill locals. The vigilante force has arisen in northeast Nigeria as a backlash against Boko Haram, and the group claims credit for thousands of arrests in Maiduguri, where Boko Haram started.
Many residents welcome the vigilantes and credit them for some relative peace in Maiduguri. Others find their existence troubling and worry that they may perpetrate human rights abuses.
Bama, a once boisterous commercial hub and border settlement, has suffered major attacks in the past few months. Suspected Islamic extremists killed at least 47 worshippers at a mosque in Bama about two weeks ago. The town is surrounded by Sambisa forest which is where Boko Haram members are believed to be hiding.
Since 2010, more than 1,700 people have been killed in attacks by the group known as Boko Haram, which means "Western education is forbidden," and which wants to impose Islamic Shariah law in all of Nigeria,
The U.S. on Monday condemned the killings in Dumba and on the mosque.
"The United States stands with the people of Nigeria to reject the indiscriminate attacks on worshippers of all faiths," it said in a statement by Deputy Spokeswoman Marie Harf. "We also deplore the extra-judicial executions of suspected Boko Haram members by any group, including vigilante mobs."
"We support the government of Nigeria as it seeks to safeguard civilians and hold accountable all those responsible for violence through a process that protects civilians and respects the rule of law," it said.