Correctional officials said Monday that more than 1,800 inmates escaped after a heavily armed gang stormed a prison in southern Nigeria with bombs, in one of the country’s biggest jailbreaks.
According to the national corrections authority, the attackers blasted their way into the Owerri prison in Imo state, engaging guards in a gun fight and breaking out inmates.
“I can confirm that the Nigerian Correctional Service’s Imo State command was attacked in Owerri by unknown gunmen,” Imo state corrections service spokesman James Madugba told AFP, adding that the number of escaped inmates was still unknown.
He said, “The situation is under control.”
Before storming the jail, the attackers arrived in pickup trucks and buses, according to the correctional authority.
No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, while President Muhammadu Buhari has described it as a “act of terrorism” perpetrated by “anarchists,” and has urged security forces to apprehend the attackers and detainees who have escaped.
Prisons in Africa’s most populous country are often overcrowded, with up to 70% of prisoners on remand and held indefinitely pending trial.
Without mentioning the prison attack, the governor of neighboring Abia state imposed a night curfew on two towns in the state to protect local residents, according to a statement.
Imo state is located in an area that has long been a hotbed for Nigerian separatist movements, with frequent tensions between the federal government and the indigenous Igbo community.
The separatist movement of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) has recently been posting videos on social media of hundreds of its militiamen in school.
Following violence between the army and local militia, authorities put a curfew on parts of Imo State earlier this year.
In a statement to AFP, IPOB spokesman Emmanuel Powerful denied any involvement in the Imo prison attack, calling any allegations “lies.”
After a unilateral declaration of independence from British rule in 1967, which triggered a brutal 30-month civil war, calls for a separate state of Biafra in the south are a touchy topic in Nigeria.
Buhari faces a number of security threats, including a more than decade-long jihadist insurgency in Nigeria’s northeast, a wave of mass kidnappings by criminal gangs in the northwest, and an increase in piracy off the coast in the Gulf of Guinea.