LAGOS, Dec 26 (Reuters) - Four civilians were killed in an attack by suspected Boko Haram militants on Monday in the Nigerian city at the centre of a conflict with the Islamists, a resident and two officials told Reuters.
Nigeria’s army said on Monday evening it had repelled the assault on the outskirts of Maiduguri, the spiritual birthplace of Boko Haram. It was the first major attack on the northeast city since June.
The army statement made no mention of casualties but Musa Alkali, a resident of the attacked area, Molai, told Reuters on Tuesday he saw four corpses.
“Boko Haram fought their way into Molai and burnt three houses before the military fighter jet arrived,” he said.
“Three people were burnt in their houses, (then) I saw four dead bodies taken out of the area,” said Alkali. He said the fourth person had been shot.
Two other people, a local vigilante group commander and a military officer, also told Reuters on Tuesday that four civilians had died. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they had been told not to speak to media and feared reprisal.
The military said that none of its troops had lost their lives. It said the attackers had come with trucks mounted with guns and suicide bombers, and when retreating had set fire to houses and vehicles.
Three Nigerian military spokesmen did not immediately respond to calls, texts and WhatsApp messages seeking comment.
Fourteen people were killed in an attack on Maiduguri in June when the group struck on the eve of a visit by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo.
The government often says it is on alert for Boko Haram attacks during the Christmas period and other festivals for Christians and Muslims.
The insurgency has in the past targeted places of worship such as churches and mosques during those times. Embassies regularly warn their nationals to be cautious and avoid public spaces at those times.
President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration has been saying Boko Haram are almost defeated but the latest attack shows the group’s continued ability to stage hit-and-run raids, prompting a renewed government push against the militants.
The Nigerian government approved the release of $1 billion last week from a state oil fund to help with the fight.
Nigeria’s long-term plan is to corral civilians inside fortified garrison towns, a move that effectively cedes the rural areas to Boko Haram.
Nigeria replaced its previous military commander of the fight against Boko Haram after half a year in the post. Military sources told Reuters this followed a series of “embarrassing” attacks by the militants. (Writing by Paul Carsten; editing by Anna Willard)