YENAGOA, Nigeria (Reuters) – More than 1,800 prisoners are on the run in southeastern Nigeria after fleeing when heavily armed gunmen attacked their prison using explosives and rocket-propelled grenades, authorities said.
Nigerian police said they believed a banned separatist group, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), was behind the attack in the town of Owerri, but a spokesman for the group denied involvement.
The secessionist movement in the southeast is one of several serious security challenges facing President Muhammadu Buhari, including a decade-long Islamist uprising in the northeast, a wave of school killings in the northwest and piracy in the Gulf of Guinea.
Buhari said the attack in a city near the oil-rich Niger Delta region, which is the cornerstone of Africa̵
The attackers stormed the facility around 2:15 am (0115 GMT) on Monday, according to the Nigerian Correctional Services.
“The Owerri Custodial Center in Imo State has been attacked by unknown gunmen and released a total of 1,844 inmates in custody,” the spokesman said in a statement late Monday.
Police said attackers used explosives to blow up the prison’s administrative block and entered the prison yard.
“Preliminary investigations have revealed that the attackers … are members of the Forbidden Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB),” said Frank Mba, a spokesman for the Nigeria Police Force.
IPOB wants independence for a region in southeastern Nigeria, which it calls Biafra. One million people died in a 1967-70 civil war between the Nigerian government and separatists there.
In recent months, security in the region has deteriorated. Several police stations have been attacked since January with large quantities of ammunition stolen and reports of IPOB’s paramilitary wing, the Eastern Security Network (ESN), colliding with the military.
But an IPOB spokesman told Reuters the group did not carry out the prison raid.
“IPOB and ESN were not involved in the attack in the state of Owerri, Imo. It is not our mandate to attack security personnel or prison facilities, ”the IPOB spokesman said in a phone call.
Reporting by Tife Owolabi in Yenagoa and Anamese Igboeroteonwu in Onitsha; Additional reporting from Camillus Eboh in Abuja; Writing by Tom Hogue and Alexis Akwagyiram; Clip by Raissa Kasolowsky