Nigeria rescue workers set up temporary camps in a remote northeast town on Thursday and distributed aid to the masses displaced by brutal fighting that left 187 people dead.
The bloodshed in the town of Baga near Lake Chad last Friday likely marked the deadliest-ever episode in the insurgency of Boko Haram, a radical group which has said it wants to create an Islamic state in northern Nigeria.
The military has been accused of firing indiscriminately on civilians and setting fire to nearly half the town, but Nigeria’s defense ministry has fiercely denied those charges.
“Our team has set up 10 camps for displaced people,” said the spokesman for the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), Manzo Ezekiel.
“Definitely thousands of people have been displaced, but as for now we cannot give the precise number,” he added.
The NEMA team includes medics to care for the injured, while food and clothing is also being distributed to the town which was the site of “barbaric” violence, area Governor Kashim Shettima said.
“If there is need, we are going to re-enforce immediately,” the NEMA spokesman told AFP, noting that the devastation in Baga was still hard to quantify, nearly a week after the fighting.
Baga falls in Borno state, considered Boko Haram’s home base, but the town had not previously seen such intense fighting.
The Islamist group has used Borno’s capital as a base, but many of the insurgents have fled to more remote corners of the state following crackdowns by the security forces in the capital.
There are conflicting reports about what happened in Baga, with the military having described it as a typical encounter with Boko Haram, similar to those seen across northern and central Nigeria since the insurgency started in 2009.
But residents and local officials have said that after gun battles with the Islamists began, soldiers went on a rampage, firing on civilians while torching homes and a market.
Nigeria’s security forces have previously been accused by leading rights groups of widespread atrocities, including summary executions, but the scale of the reported carnage in Baga is unprecedented.
The Red Cross has said that 187 people were killed, while the military has countered with a figure of 37.
The conflict with Boko Haram has killed more than 3,000 people since 2009, including deaths caused by the security forces.
The violence continued overnight Thursday, when suspected Boko Haram gunmen stormed a military post and two police stations in the northeastern town of Gashua.
The security forces returned fire, sparking a battle that killed two police and five insurgents, military spokesman in Yobe state Eli Lazarus said in a statement.
The northern half of Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, is mainly Muslim, while the south if predominately Christian.