DAKAR, Senegal – Nigerian authorities say they are looking for around 1,800 detainees who escaped a prison aided by heavily armed gunmen in the southeast of the country, where anti-government separatists have long been active.
Authorities have blamed the jailbreak of a rebel group that promotes the decades-old cause of secession in southeast Nigeria, popularly known as Biafra.
The escapes came as security declined in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, where kidnappings became commonplace and the military was deployed to respond to security threats including terrorism and banditry , in almost all states.
Prison officials said that early Monday morning, men armed with sophisticated weapons arrived at a prison in Owerri, in southeast Imo state. They exchanged gunshots with security personnel, prison officials said, then used explosives to force their way into the prison yard.
Nigerian security services have launched a search operation to retrieve the detainees. They estimate the number of escapees at 1844.
Prison officials said in a statement that they “call on the good citizens of Imo State and indeed Nigerians to provide useful information that will aid the recovery effort.”
They said all officers in other prisons should “remain vigilant at this difficult time in our history,” suggesting concerns about further escapes.
A few prisoners were returning to detention, accompanied by relatives or lawyers, Francis Enobore, a spokesperson for the prison system in Nigeria, said in a WhatsApp exchange. Thirty-five inmates refused to leave when the jailbreak took place, he said.
Police said the attackers were members of the indigenous people of Biafra, a secessionist group banned in Nigeria since 2017 and designated as a “militant terrorist organization” by the government.
But a spokesperson for the indigenous peoples of Biafra denied that the group – or its paramilitary wing, the Eastern Security Network – was involved.
“ESN is in the bush chasing terrorists and has nothing to do with the said attacks,” spokeswoman Emma Powerful said in a statement. “It is not our mandate to attack security personnel or prisons.”
There were no casualties among the police, who repelled an attack on the prison armory, according to Frank Mba, a police spokesperson.