MAIDUGURI, Nigeria — In fierce fighting Sunday, Nigerian troops clashed with Islamic extremists who attacked Maiduguri, the biggest city in northeastern Nigeria. Dozens of combatants have been killed and wounded, soldiers and hospital workers said.
At the same time the insurgents continued scorched-earth attacks on villages some 200 kilometers (125 miles) to the south in Adamawa state, slitting throats of residents, looting and burning homes and abducting dozens of trapped women and children, according to Vandu Kainu and other escaping survivors.
The attacks come as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital nearly 1,000 miles (more than 1,500 kilometers) southwest of Maiduguri, for meetings with President Goodluck Jonathan and his chief rival over fears of violence around critical Feb. 14 elections.
In Maiduguri, troops blocked roads into the city, inadvertently preventing civilians from escaping.
“Coordinated air and land operations are being conducted now” around Maiduguri, Defense Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Chris Olukolade said in a message posted on Twitter.
“We believe hundreds of thousands of civilians are now at grave risk,” Amnesty International said.
Adamawa state legislator Adamu Kamale appealed for troops to protect civilians in Michika, where six villages are under attack. “The attacks have continued since Friday with no presence of security operatives,” he complained.
President Jonathan made a surprise visit to Maiduguri 10 days ago and pledged to crush the insurgents. But his repeated promises are ringing hollow as Boko Haram since August has seized and kept control of large swaths of the northeast, including key border crossings into Cameroon, Chad and Niger.
Boko Haram has denounced democracy and wants to make an Islamic state of Nigeria, whose population of about 170 million is divided almost equally between Muslims in the north and Christians in the south.
The extremists’ Sunday attacked Maiduguri, capital of Borno state, on three fronts soon after midnight Sunday and troops battled for hours to hold them at bay, according to an officer involved in the fighting.
He said he saw dozens of combatants killed. A hospital worker said they are treating dozens of wounded soldiers. Both men spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to reporters.
The attack is not unexpected. Boko Haram on Jan. 3 seized a key military base and Baga town on the border with Cameroon, killing hundreds of civilians and leaving the main road open to Maiduguri. The military said they were counter-attacking a week ago. But escaping civilians said there was no fighting and the insurgents retain control.
The insurgents Sunday simultaneously attacked Maiduguri and Monguno town, 180 kilometers (112 miles) away, said Olukolade, army spokesman.
While soldiers were succeeding in holding off the attack on Maiduguri, it appeared they might lose Monguno, according to Abbas Gava, a spokesman for civilian self-defense groups.
Maiduguri is the birthplace of Boko Haram and has been attacked many times in the 5-year Islamic insurgency that killed 10,000 people last year.
Associated Press writers Ibrahim Abdulaziz in Yola, Nigeria and Michelle Faul in Dakar, Senegal, contributed to this report.