May 03, 2012Gunmen open fire on cattle traders in Potiskum market, north-east Nigeria, killing up to 50 people .
Up to 50 people were killed in a livestock market in north-east Nigeria after traders set fire to a suspected member of Boko Haram, triggering reprisal attacks amid a surge in violence from the radical Islamist sect.
"A number of armed men shot their way into the market early on Wednesday afternoon. I don't know whether they were trying to steal cattle or money, because the cattle dealers carry a lot of money with them," said Abdul Aziz, a money changer in the remote Potiskum market, which attracts crowds from neighbouring Chad and Niger.
"One of the gunmen was caught and burned to death using a tyre and oil. People said the men were Boko Haram but there is a lot of anger and everybody is so scared these days," Aziz added.
Hours after the first attack, a larger group of armed men surrounded the market and opened fire, witnesses said. A police spokesman, Toyin Gbadegesin, said: "At this point, it became a large scale attack – about 30 people were killed and the same number were injured."
A police officer at the scene put the death toll higher, saying at least 50 people were killed. "It's possible many more perished because families came to remove their dead," he said. "There are at least 20 burnt-out cars and [dead] animals scattered everywhere. Some people were trampled."
Abou Diawa, a cattle trader from Chad, said he hid in a lorry full of oxen during the shooting spree. "They started throwing explosives as we were closing for the day. Everybody started running. There was gunfire everywhere, they were even shooting cattle. These people were madmen," he said.
Boko Haram says it is fighting to establish an Islamic state in Africa's most populous country, whose 160 million citizens are split evenly between Muslim and Christian. Yobe state, one of its northern strongholds, has borne the brunt of attacks in an insurgency that has claimed almost 500 lives this year.
The latest suspected attack comes days after the group released a video celebrating a suicide bombing on the headquarters of a local newspaper and a warning to the media that they risked becoming targets if they published articles against the sect.
Officials said crude explosives made using tin cans found on Wednesday had been found at the scene previous Boko Haram attacks, but they were hesitant to confirm the organisation had carried out the Potiskum shootout.
While the sect frequently raids banks in the north to fund their activities, cattle raiders often swoop on markets after distracting traders by causing a commotion. Ethnic clashes are also frequent amid scarce land and water resources for the largely pastoral population in the north.
Bombings and drive-by shootings that target government institutions and police officials are typical of attacks by Boko Haram, but the group has recently turned its sights to media publications, churches and universities.
Last week, a wave of violence left some 30 people dead after a suicide bomber rammed into a newspaper office in the capital, Abuja, and gunmen attacked a university in Kano.
The government is struggling to rein in an increase in attacks after recent attempts at opening mediation talks floundered.