'Dozens' killed in Nigeria gun battles

Dozens of people have been killed in fierce clashes between Nigeria's military and suspected Islamists, with a massive blaze that followed the fighting leaving nearly half the town destroyed, government and rescue sources told AFP on Monday.

Gun battles broke out in the remote northeastern town of Baga on Friday after troops surrounded a mosque allegedly housing Islamist insurgents.

The town on Lake Chad lies in Borno state, the home base of Boko Haram Islamists who are blamed for carrying out scores of attacks across northern and central Nigeria since 2009.

The fighting "killed dozens of people", said a state government official who refused to be named.

Various officials contacted by AFP have been reluctant to discuss the scale of the violence, saying only the military was authorised to provide casualty figures.

A rescue official with contacts in Baga told AFP that "many residents are still unaccounted...It is assumed that they fled into the bush".

"From information reaching us from Baga, 40 percent of the town has been gutted by fire," added the official who asked not to be named.

Borno state military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Sagir Musa told AFP that media reports that some 180 people could have died in the clashes were "extensively inflated".

"There could have been some casualties, but it is unthinkable to say that 185 people died," Musa said.

"On my honour as an officer, nothing like that happened," he added.

Musa, as well as the defence and army spokesmen have refused to provide details of the fighting.

Local residents reported deaths among the insurgents, soldiers as well as civilians, according to an official who toured the area on Sunday with regional governor Kashim Shettima.

Locals also told the governor's delegation that the clashes started when troops surrounded a mosque that was allegedly sheltering insurgents.

A shootout ensued and there were reports from residents of the Islamists using heavy weapons including rocket propelled grenades, but the nature of the fighting could not be confirmed and details were slow to emerge.

Red Cross spokesman Nwakpa O. Nwakpa told AFP that a significant attack occurred, but said, "we really don't know yet how many people died".

Mobile phone network coverage in some parts of Borno was crippled last year after Boko Haram burned down a series of telecommunication masts.

Baga is more than 150 kilometres (95 miles) from the state capital Maiduguri, a precarious drive on poor roads in a region hit by waves of violence.

Boko Haram has used Maiduguri as a base for its insurgency, but scores of militants have reportedly fled to more remote corners of the state following a crackdown by security forces in the city.

Nigeria's security forces have a history of minimising casualty figures in the conflict with Boko Haram, in a bid to downplay the Islamists' capacity.

But resentment of the military is high in some communities and locals have in the past given inflated death tolls while accusing the military of indiscriminately killing civilians during their operations.

Boko Haram has said it is fighting to create an Islamic state in Nigeria's mainly Muslim north, but the group's demands have shifted repeatedly.

The conflict in Africa's most populous country and top oil producer is estimated to have left about 3,000 people dead since 2009.

The toll includes people killed by the security forces, who have been accused by international rights groups of massive abuses, especially in the northeast.

Facing mounting political pressure over his inability to end the violence, President Goodluck Jonathan set up a panel last week to study how an amnesty could be offered to Boko Haram.

It is unclear if members of the radical sect are open to an amnesty deal.