Many are feared dead after an Islamist militant attack on the north-east Nigerian town Gudumbali, two residents and a vigilante said.
The Nigerian government in June ordered thousands of people who fled the decade-long war with Boko Haram to return to Gudumbali, one of the most dangerous areas in north-east Nigeria. Officials cut off food and other aid to those who refused.
There is mounting pressure to show progress in the war against Islamist groups ahead of a presidential election, according to sources familiar with the situation.
Militants struck Gudumbali in Guzamala region of Borno state on Friday, wearing military uniforms and firing on Nigerian soldiers and residents, sending both troops and civilians fleeing, witnesses said.
The Nigerian military did not immediately respond to request for comment.
“Many civilians lost their lives, we don’t have casualty figures for now,” said Mohammed, a resident, whose first name is used because the military threatens reprisals against those who speak to media.
“Thousands of people fled their homes.”
The vigilante, Baba Ali Musa, said militants came on motorbikes and in pick-up trucks carrying anti-aircraft guns, while others fired rocket-propelled grenades.
“They came towards the town shooting sporadically,” he said. “They were saying if you know you’re an innocent person just leave, our target is not you, or if you wish to stay with us, it’s no matter, you can stay with us.”
Nigeria’s north-east is home to two Islamist insurgencies: Boko Haram and its breakaway group, Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA), now considered by security experts the stronger of the two.
ISWA in recent months embarked on a hearts and minds campaign to win the support of the local population and create an economy the group could tax to fund its insurgency.
Gudumbali is in territory where ISWA has greater influence.