Heavily armed militants attacked a prison facility in Nigeria’s southeastern city of Owerri on Monday, allowing nearly 2,000 inmates to escape.
Armed gunmen stormed the Owerri prison on April 5 at around 2:15 a.m., according to the Nigerian Correctional Service. Some militants used explosives and rocket-propelled grenades to detonate sections of the building.
“The Owerri Custodial Centre in Imo state has been attacked by unknown gunmen and forcefully released a total of 1,844 inmates in custody,” a spokesman for the Nigerian prison service said in a statement Monday.
“The attackers who stormed the facility … gained entrance into the yard by using explosives to blast the administrative block,” Nigerian Correctional Service Spokesman Francis Enobore said. “They were said to have arrived [at] the center in their large number in several Hilux pick-up vans and Sienna buses armed with sophisticated weapons and immediately engaged the security personnel on duty in a fierce gun battle. They eventually detonated the explosive to gain entrance.”
The Nigerian Police Force said Monday the gunmen also attempted to infiltrate the force’s headquarters and armory, but that police officers successfully thwarted the attack. The militants were armed with “sophisticated weapons such as General Purpose Machine Guns (GPMGs), Sub-Machine Guns (SMGs), AK49 rifles, Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs), [and] Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs).”
The Nigerian Police Force said it believes the attackers were members of an outlawed Nigerian separatist group known as the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB). The Nigerian government designated the IPOB as an official terror organization in 2017. The IPOB demands independence for a region of southeastern Nigeria it calls Biafra. A 1967-1970 civil war between Biafra secessionists and the Nigerian federal government killed one million people.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari condemned the attack on Owerri prison on Monday as “an act of terrorism” in a statement released by his spokesman on April 5.
“The President directed security and intelligence agencies in the state and the geo-political zone to fully mobilize and go after the terrorists, apprehend them and get them punished under the full weight of the law,” the statement read. “He also called for the best efforts to be made to rearrest fleeing prison detainees, many of whom are believed to be deadly criminals.”
IPOB leader Nnamdi Kanu denied the group’s involvement in the prison attack in a statement to CNN on April 6.
“We have no hand in what transpired in Owerri, Imo State,” Kanu told the U.S.-based news outlet.