Suspected Boko Haram members dressed as soldiers rounded up and killed at least 242 villagers in four separate villages of Nigeria's northeast, the center of an escalating insurgency increasingly targeting civilians.
The most recent assault, in the village of Bardari late on Wednesday, killed at least 42 and came two days after officials and witnesses said raiders killed at least 200 people in three other villages in the Borno region, where Boko Haram insurgents first launched their campaign to carve out an Islamist state.
The gunmen in military uniform called the Bardari villagers together then opened fire, a police source told Reuters. "The people couldn't identify them in time as terrorists."
Witnesses of the three attacks on Monday night described similar scenes. But they added Thursday that the military failed to intervene even though it was warned an attack was imminent.
A community leader who witnessed the killings on Monday said residents of the Danjara, Agapalwa, and Antagra villages had pleaded for the military to send soldiers to protect the area after they heard that fighters were about to attack. But help never arrived.
"We all thought they were the soldiers that we earlier reported to that the insurgents might attack us," said a community leader who escaped the bloodshed and fled to Maiduguri, the provincial capital. It took a few days for survivors to get word of the killings to Maiduguri because travel on the roads is extremely dangerous and phone connections are poor or nonexistent.
Boko Haram, an armed group that wants to establish a hard-line Islamic state in Nigeria, has been taking over villages in the country’s northeast, killing and terrorizing civilians and political leaders as fighters make a comeback from a year-long military offensive aimed at crushing them. The death toll from this week’s attacks is among the highest yet reported.
The insurgents on Monday arrived in Toyota Hilux pickup trucks — commonly used by the military — and told the civilians they were soldiers "and we are here to protect you all," the same tactic used by the group when they kidnapped more than 300 girls from a school in the town of Chibok on April 15.
After people gathered in the center of town on the orders of the insurgents, "they begin to shout 'Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar' (‘God is great’) on top of their voices, then they began to fire at the people continuously for a very long time until all that gathered were all dead," said the witness, who did not want to be named for fear for his safety.
The Monday killings were confirmed by Mohammed Ali Ndume, a senator representing Borno, and by a top security official in Maiduguri who insisted on anonymity because he is not allowed to speak to the media.
Thousands of people have been killed in Nigeria’s 5-year-old insurgency, more than 2,000 so far just this year, and an estimated 750,000 Nigerians have been driven from their homes.
Nigeria's military has insisted that the big influx of troops and a year-old state of emergency in three states — which gives them the power to detain suspects, take over buildings and lock down any area — has Boko Haram on the run.
But while the group has largely been pushed out of cities in the northeast, its fighters have been seizing villages in the semi-arid region where they once held sway. They are boldly staking their claim by hoisting their black flags with white Arabic lettering, and making large swaths of Nigeria no-go regions for the military.
The villages attacked on Monday are in the Gwoza, a regional political center whose emir was killed in a Boko Haram ambush on his convoy last week. Emirs are religious and traditional rulers who have been targeted for speaking out against Boko Haram's extremism.
Borno Gov. Kashim Shettima traveled on Saturday to Gwoza to pay his respects to the fallen emir and was quoted as saying it was a terrifying ride.
"If I say I was not petrified traveling through that ... road to Gwoza I would be lying because that road had been designated a no-go area for about two months now due to the incessant attacks and killings that occur there," the governor was quoted as saying by the Information Nigeria website.
A local journalist who was in the convoy that was escorted by 150 soldiers counted at least 16 towns and villages that were deserted along the 85 mile route, according to the local media report.
Boko Haram has also recently stepped up raids in northern Borno state near the borders with Cameroon, Chad and Niger, pillaging villages, looting food stores and killing residents.
The attacks are generally seen as response to villagers forming civilian vigilante groups against Boko Haram, which in turn accuses villagers of helping the Nigerian military's counter-insurgency.