A screengrab taken on October 2, 2014 from a video released by the Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram shows the group's leader, Abubakar Shekau, gesturing as he delivers a speech
Kano (Nigeria) (AFP) - The number of villagers massacred by Boko Haram jihadists in a remote village in northeastern Nigeria rose to 160 on Wednesday, according to locals, as the military rejected accounts of the attack.
Residents of Kukuwa-Gari in Yobe State described how more than 150 of their relatives and neighbours drowned in a river fleeing militants who opened fire on the village on Thursday last week, while another eight were shot dead.
A local official put the death toll at a much lower 50 while Colonel Rabe Abubakar, the acting director of the military's information department, said reports of the incident were "not true, utterly scurrilous and very misleading" in a statement entitled "Boko Haram did not kill 150 in Yobe".
He said the military was tipped off ahead of the attack, which he placed at "mid-afternoon yesterday", so that troops and civilian forces were able to ambush the Boko Haram militants outside Kukuwa-Gari.
"The insurgents ran into them and a gunbattle ensued in which four Boko Haram members and one civilian (fighter) lost their lives," he said.
The villagers' count of the dead in Kukuwa-Gari would constitute the largest loss of life in any single Boko Haram attack since President Muhammadu Buhari swept to power on May 29, vowing to crush the insurgency.
Telecommunications in Kukuwa-Gari are almost non-existent, but villagers who fled to nearby settlements said those who returned had buried 160 bodies, while many feared going back.
Alhaji Kankana Sarkin-Baka, leader of a local group of hunters co-opted to fight the insurgency alongside vigilante groups, said 17 gunmen had come on motorcycles, including a local Boko Haram commander.
- 'No troops deployed' -
"They had superior firepower because they were using modern guns while we were using hunting guns. We were outpowered but they were outnumbered," he told AFP.
He said six of the fighters positioned themselves by the river, blocking the only escape route, and opened fire on fleeing residents, forcing them to jump into the water.
"So far we have buried 160 people. And out of this number only eight bodies had gunshot wounds, which means all the others drowned," he told AFP.
He said the villagers had received reports from Galda town, around 100 kilometres (60 miles) away, of seven bloated bodies seen floating down the river which were believed likely to be further victims of the massacre.
Sarkin-Baka said the hunters killed 14 of the attackers, including the commander and his deputy, while three escaped with gunshot wounds.
"We recovered guns and explosives and drugs from them," he added.
The villagers, who have secured reinforcements of 100 hunters from the state capital Damaturu, say the gunmen were "born and bred" in the area and joined Boko Haram several years ago.
"Up to this moment no troops have deployed. Our major operational challenge is good weapons to effectively counter any possible further attack by Boko Haram. All we have are hunting guns," Sarkin-Baka told AFP.
Kukuwa-Gari resident Modu Balumi, who had fled to neighbouring Gombe State, told AFP his sister-in-law and two of her children were among several villagers still missing.
- Aerial bombardment -
"Honestly, I am not happy with the way the military tried to deny that our village was attacked. Many of us who are yet to return have changed our minds about going back by this stance of the military," he told AFP.
Boko Haram has waged a violent campaign for a separate Islamic homeland in the northeast which has seen more than 15,000 deaths since 2009.
The Gujba area of Yobe state, where Kukuwa-Gari is located, has been hit hard by Boko Haram violence in the past but had seen relative calm since troops reclaimed it in March.
"The fact that reports of the Kukawa-Gari massacre are only being reported five days after the fact... suggests that there was unlikely any discernible security presence in the region at the time the militant incursion took place," Ryan Cummings, chief security analyst at South African consultancy Red 24, told AFP.
"A worrying consideration given that the Nigerian government is facilitating the repopulation of areas which were similarly recaptured from Boko Haram control."
The army later issued a statement which made no mention of the Kukuwa-Gari attack but said troops engaged Boko Haram fighters fleeing an air force bombardment of their stronghold in the Sambisa forest, in neighbouring Borno State, late on Tuesday.