Militants killed around 100 Nigerian soldiers in an attack on an army base, security sources said, blaming Islamic State West Africa.
The toll is among the highest since President Muhammadu Buhari came to power in 2015 and could raise pressure on him ahead of an election in February, not least because he claims victory over the nine-year insurgency.
The insurgents attacked the base in Metele in north-eastern Borno state, the epicentre of a revolt by Boko Haram and its Islamic State splinter group.
“The insurgents took us unawares,” said an officer who requested anonymity. “The base was burnt with arms and we lost about 100 soldiers. It is a huge loss.”
Many troops are missing, sources said. a soldier said more troops were killed when an attempt to recover bodies from the initial attack was ambushed.
“We all flew because we didn’t know where the bullets were coming from,” he said. “They killed some of us who went to evacuate bodies of the dead soldiers.”
“We left our armour, tanks and weapons. They were all there. The village is still under their control.”
Four security sources said around 100 died in Metele and the death toll was not final. A fifth said 96 died in north-east in recent days, mostly in Metele.
The senate, controlled by the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP), on Thursday suspended its session in honour of what it said were 44 dead soldiers after the Metele attack.
Opposition presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar, Buhari’s main rival, called on government to support the families of dead soldiers.
A presidency spokesman said the military would issue a statement. Military spokesmen did not respond to requests for comment. Government and the military often decline to acknowledge the scale of losses in the north-east.
Militants killed hundreds of soldiers in the region in recent months.