ABUJA (AFP) – Boko Haram Islamists opened fire Friday on security agents conducting an operation near a residence for lawmakers in Nigeria’s capital Abuja, starting a gunfight that caused deaths and injuries, the intelligence branch and police said.
Following a tipoff from arrested Boko Haram fighters, security forces headed to a purported weapons cache behind the building in Abuja’s Apo neighbourhood, said Marilyn Ogar, spokeswoman for the Department of State Services.
Shortly after midnight they started “digging for the arms,” Ogar said in a statement from the intelligence branch.
They then “came under heavy gunfire attack by… Boko Haram elements within the area, which prompted immediate response from the security team,” she said.
“Some persons were injured and 12 others were arrested in connection with the incident,” Ogar added.
Police spokeswoman for Abuja, Hyelhira Altine Daniel, told AFP that “deaths have been recorded,” following the incident, but declined to provide figures.
Ogar later told AFP that she was not yet able to confirm fatalities.
Boko Haram, which claims it wants to set up an Islamic state in northern Nigeria, has previously attacked Abuja in the center of the country, including bombings at a United Nations building, newspaper offices and a shopping mall.
The capital was placed under tight security after the August 2011 UN bombing, with military checkpoints in place around most government buildings.
Attacks in Abuja had however declined dramatically in recent months.
Most of Boko Haram’s recent assaults have been concentrated in the northeast, the group’s stronghold, with civilians in remote areas the most common targets.
Heavily-armed Islamists stormed the town of Benisheik in the northeast late Tuesday, setting up roadblocks and gunning down motorists and travellers who tried to pass through.
Scores of buildings were also burnt in the assault that left 87 people dead, according to an official in northeastern Borno State.
The military in mid-May launched a major offensive against Boko Haram, aiming to crush the group’s four-year insurgency.
While the military has boasted major successes in the operation, the gun battle in the capital as well the spate of other recent attacks casts doubt on claims that the Islamists are in disarray and incapable of attacking prominent areas.
Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country and top oil producer, but poverty remains rampant despite the country’s vast resource wealth.
A U.S. delegation that visited Nigeria last month said Boko Haram’s four-year insurgency had scared off investors and curbed development.
Renewed attacks in the capital would likely further create cracks in official claims that the Boko Haram threat has been contained.
The conflict is estimated to have left more than 3,600 dead since 2009, including killings by the security services.