Yenagoa, Nigeria — Officials said more than 1,800 prisoners were fleeing in southeastern Nigeria after fleeing when heavily armed groups attacked prisons with explosives and rocket-propelled grenades.
Nigerian police said they believed that a banned separatist group, the Biafra Indigenous People (IPOB), was behind the attack in the city of Owerri, but group spokesmen denied involvement.
The separatist movement in the southeast is one of the few serious security challenges facing President Muhammadu Buhari, a decade-long Muslim rebellion in the northeast and in the northwest. Includes school kidnapping and piracy in the Gulf of Guinea.
Prime Minister Buhari said an attack in a city near the oil-rich Niger Delta region, Africa’s largest oil exporter and largest economic center, was a “terrorist act.” He ordered security forces to catch the fleeing prisoners.
According to the Nigerian Correctional Bureau, the attackers attacked the facility around 2:15 am on Monday.
“The Owerri detention center in Imo was attacked by an unknown armed group and forcibly released a total of 1,844 prisoners,” the spokesman said in a statement late Monday.
Police said the attackers used explosives to blow up a prison control block and enter the prison yard.
Frank Muba, a spokesman for the Nigerian Police Force, said:
IPOB wants independence in a region called Biafra in southeastern Nigeria. One million people were killed in the 1967-70 civil war between the Nigerian government and the separatists there.
Security in the area has deteriorated in recent months. Since January, several police stations have been attacked, large amounts of ammunition have been stolen, and the IPOB paramilitary Eastern Security Network (ESN) has been reported to have clashed with the military.
However, an IPOB spokesman told Reuters that the group did not carry out a prison raid.
“The IPOB and ESN were not involved in the attack in Owerri, Imo. It is not our duty to attack security guards or prison facilities,” an IPOB spokesman said on the phone.
By Tife Owolabi