KANO (AFP) – Hundreds of residents of a northeastern city were fleeing Tuesday after arrests by troops and rumours of new attacks by Islamist militants, prompting authorities to plead for calm.
Residents of several neighbourhoods in the city of Damaturu accused troops of moving door-to-door over the past two days and arbitrarily arresting those suspected of belonging to Islamist militant group Boko Haram.
The alleged arrests follow a gun battle between security forces and suspected Boko Haram members Sunday that left two militants dead in Damaturu, the capital of Yobe state. Police claimed to have arrested more than 30 suspected militants.
“Hundreds of people are now stranded at the (bus station) trying to leave the city, but buses and taxis are inadequate,” said one resident, whose name AFP withheld for safety reasons.
The Pindigari area, where troops battled militants on Sunday, is almost completely deserted, a resident of the area said.
“We are trapped in the (bus station). Commercial vehicles are not available while some people don’t have enough money to pay transport fares,” another fleeing resident said.
“People are carrying their luggage on their heads and trekking out of the city.”
The arrests and rumours of planned Boko Haram attacks during the forthcoming Muslim Eid holiday this weekend have forced residents to flee the city in droves, according to residents.
The police accused the Islamists of spreading the rumours to cause chaos.
“Boko Haram members are the ones spreading the rumour and propaganda that they (troops) would launch attacks during Eid,” Yobe police chief Patrick Egbuniwe said. “It’s a ruse. They are just confusing people to flee the city.”
The exodus prompted the special military unit in the area to issue a statement late Monday, calling on fleeing residents to return, assuring them of protection.
“Residents of the state capital should not panic or leave town as a result of rumours and speculations … those who left as a result of rumours and speculations should return and live peacefully in their own homes,” the statement said.
Damaturu, like other cities in Nigeria’s northeast, has been hit with scores of deadly gun and bomb attacks by Boko Haram. The group is accused of killing more than 1,400 people in central and northern Nigeria since 2010.
Last week, a suicide bomber killed six soldiers and a civilian in the city in an attack claimed by the Islamist group.
Security forces have been accused of major abuses following attacks in the past, including the arrest and killings of civilians as well as the burning of homes.