Nigerian security forces have committed human rights abuses in their fight against a near five year insurgency by Boko Haram, an armed group that seeks to establish a strict Sharia state in Nigeria, a United Nations official said Friday.
Boko Haram has killed thousands in its effort to carve out territory in Nigeria, a country of around 170 million people comprised of almost equal numbers of Christians, living mainly in the south, and Muslims in the north. Rights groups say the military carries out extra-judicial killings, torture and illegally detains suspects.
"Many people I have met with during this visit openly acknowledge human rights violations have been committed by the security forces," the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, told reporters in the capital of Abuja.
"These have served to alienate communities, and create fertile ground for Boko Haram to cultivate new recruits," she added.
In August, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court said the group could be responsible for crimes against humanity. The U.S. has designated Boko Haram a "terrorist" group.
Pillay’s announcement comes amid a spike in violence in Nigeria’s northeast over the last several months. Armed fighters struck the city of Maiduguri Friday morning, attacking the main military barracks with gunfire and explosions but the Ministry of Defense said it repelled the fighters and inflicted "heavy casualties."
Children walking to school when the shooting erupted cried in fear and confusion. Panicked residents fled from their homes.
Soldiers had a shootout with the fighters at the main Giwa Military Barracks, the headquarters of a 10-month-old security forces' offensive aiming to halt the uprising. Abuja has declared a state of emergency in the country's three hardest-hit provinces.
Fighter jets bombed targets in the city, according to several local news reports, but Nigeria's Ministry of Defense refused to confirm that.
Spokesman Brig. Gen. Chris Olukolade said the military repelled an attack aimed at freeing extremists detained at the barracks.
It appeared the fighters broke into the military installation because Olukolade said the attackers suffered "heavy casualties" including some detainees killed by friendly fire as they were released.
He said four soldiers were wounded in the fighting.
"Hot pursuit" operations by land and air are in progress, he said.
Olukolade said they believed the fighters were trying "to boost their depleted stock of fighters" following two weeks of aerial bombardments and ground assaults on forest hideouts and mountain caves along the borders with Cameroon and Chad.
Al Jazeera and wire services