Heavily armed and under orders to break up an ethnic militia, a combined force of Nigerian police officers and agents of the country's domestic spy agency instead found themselves the target of a brutal attack that left at least 30 of them dead and others still missing days later, authorities said Thursday.
The attack on the officers in Nasarawa state, near Nigeria's central capital of Abuja, again showed how overwhelmed security forces are in this nation as they continue to be targeted in an increasingly bloody insurgency led by Islamic extremists in the country's north. The killings even forced President Goodluck Jonathan to abandon a much-heralded diplomatic visit to southern Africa to return home to speak to security forces about the increasing body counts from violence across the nation.
The attack Tuesday in the village of Alakio, near Nasarawa's state capital of Lafia, saw members of the Ombatse militia attack and rout the contingent of officers. At least 30 officers of the police and the State Security Service were killed in the attack, Nasarawa police spokesman Michael O. Ada said. Another 17 remain missing and "might be held hostage," Ada said.
Ombatse, a militia of people belonging to the Eggon people of the region, had been forcing Christians and Muslims to convert to their quasi-religious organization, Ada said. The security forces had planned to raid Ombatse's local shrine, the spokesman said.
The killings come after Islamic extremists in Nigeria's northeast armed with heavy weapons and anti-aircraft guns raided a town called Bama also on Tuesday, killing at least 42 people, including 22 police officers. In a statement Thursday, Nigeria's federal police said commanders received orders to stop the violence.
"We consider the attack not just an attack on the Nigeria Police and its officers and men but an attack on the collective will of Nigerians to protect and preserve our dear fatherland; this we have vowed to put an end to," the federal police command said.
The killings in Nasarawa state, as well as relentless violence across Nigeria's predominantly Muslim north, forced Jonathan to return early from a trip to South Africa and abandon a promised state visit to Namibia. A statement from his office said he would meet immediately with military, police and security officials upon returning to the Nigerian capital.
"The president is returning to Abuja immediately to personally oversee efforts by national security agencies to contain the fresh challenges to national security," the statement read.
Nigeria, a nation of more than 160 million people, is home to some 250 different ethnic groups. In recent years, the rising Islamic insurgency in the country has seen more than 1,600 people killed, despite authorities sending more police and soldiers into affected cities and towns. Meanwhile, human rights activists say security forces continue to kill and torture civilians, further alienating them from the people they are assigned to protect.
Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.