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Suspected Boko Haram fighters kill 65 in attack on funeral in Nigeria

Ashes smolder in Budu near Maiduguri on July 28, 2019, after an attack on a funeral in northeast Nigeria left 65 people dead. (Audu Marte/AFP/Getty Images)

DAKAR, Senegal — Villagers were walking home from a funeral in northeast Nigeria this weekend when gunmen on motorbikes surrounded them in a graveyard and opened fire.

The attack bearing the hallmarks of terrorist group Boko Haram left at least 65 people dead, authorities said Monday, as residents urged the military to ramp up protection in a region gripped by extremist violence.

The latest round of bloodshed comes almost exactly 10 years after Nigerian forces tangled with extremists at a mosque in Borno state, a battle that killed hundreds and is considered the beginning of Boko Haram’s uprising.

Militants indiscriminately shot at mourners Saturday outside a village just north of Maiduguri, Borno’s state capital, said Abba Dogo, assistant to the local government chairman. Then they turned their weapons on neighbors who had heard the commotion and rushed over to help. 

“Men, women and children,” he said.

Boko Haram, an extremist group that has killed 27,000 in 10 years

Boko Haram is one of several extremist groups that aims to build an Islamist state in the region. The name of the organization is Hausa for “Western education is taboo.” 

Over the past decade, the group has killed approximately 27,000 people and forced an estimated 2 million more from their homes in its quest to wipe out secular rule and impose Sharia law

Boko Haram’s longtime leader, Abubakar Shekau, envisions a world with all traces of Western influence and Christianity stamped out. Women must cover themselves and skip schooling or face lashings, among other forms of corporal punishment. Drinking, soccer, pop music — revelry outside of prayer — are considered evil.

Though the Nigerian government and international partners have beaten back Boko Haram’s footprint in recent years, the group continues to carry out deadly attacks from its stronghold in the country’s northeast.

Shekau’s fighters are known for strapping women and children in particular with bombs and sending them into crowds.

The group grabbed global notoriety in 2014 after kidnapping 276 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok in Borno state. The abductions inspired the #BringBackOurGirls campaign backed by then-first lady Michelle Obama and other celebrities. (More than 100 are still missing.)

How Saturday's funeral turned into a massacre

Hassan Ahmadu, 38, said he was in a cemetery just before noon for the funeral of a relative when strangers on motorbikes approached. 

“My heart started skipping a beat,” he said, “and I told an elderly person next to me that I am not comfortable with those people coming to us.”

Before they could move, he said, the men started spraying bullets into the crowd.

“I was shot on my right thigh and shoulders and left for dead,” he said from his hospital bed in Maiduguri. 

Ahmadu lost five family members in the attack: his grandfather, uncle, half brother and two cousins. 

He felt lucky to be alive, he said, because the gunmen started checking the bodies to make sure people were dead.

“They stopped and left before reaching my place,” he said.

Muhammed Bulama, the local government chairman, told reporters the attack appeared to be an act of retaliation.

Two weeks ago, he said, villagers in the area fought off suspected members of Boko Haram who they said routinely steal their cows and produce. They killed 11 in the violence, Bulama said.

Modu Kanumbu, a self-described vigilante, was at home Saturday in a nearby village when he said people knocked on his door, pleading for help. 

Kanumbu said he picked up his double-barreled shotgun and phoned soldiers in the area for backup. 

Then they hurried toward the graveyard and saw a group of young girls running toward them. The girls pointed the way.

“We headed there only to find bodies lying everywhere,” Kanumbu said in an interview. “Those who could talk urged us to go after Boko Haram, saying they were fleeing.”

Kanumbu and said that he and the soldiers followed the terrorists’ trail but that it was too late.

Has Nigeria really defeated Boko Haram? 

President Buhari condemned the massacre in a Sunday statement, ordering the nation’s air force to launch air patrols as the army tracked down the attackers on the ground. 

A spokesman for the Ni­ger­ian military did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the military’s response to the funeral attack.

Boko Haram has not claimed responsibility for the attack, but it carried the militant group’s signature.

The homegrown Islamist insurgency in Africa’s most populous nation has displaced millions. Analysts say the protracted unrest threatens to destabilize one of the continent’s top economies, spill into neighboring countries and clear the way for terrorist training grounds across West Africa.

Over the years, Nigerian leaders have claimed victory over Boko Haram, with President Muhammadu Buhari once labeling them “technically defeated.”

But attacks have continued in Borno, where teenage suicide bombers, suspected to have been sent by the terrorists, killed at least 30 in June.

And some members have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, breaking away from Boko Haram to target largely military personnel over civilians. 

Alfa reported from Maiduguri, Nigeria. Isaac Abrak in Abuja, Nigeria, contributed to this report.

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