Militants have killed an estimated 40 pupils in a pre-dawn attack on a Nigerian school, setting ablaze a locked hostel then shooting and slitting the throats of those who escaped through windows.
Survivors said some of the victims, aged 11 to 18, had been burned alive by the attackers,thought to be members of Islamist extremist group Boko Haram, which is opposed to “western-style” education.
Teachers who fled through the bush said around 40 pupils died in the assault, which began at around 2am on Tuesday in the town of Buni Yadi in the north-eastern state of Yobe.
Soldiers were still gathering corpses so could not give an exact number of dead, a military spokesman said.
The school is about 45 miles south of Damaturu, Yobe’s capital. Communications in the area are limited because extremists last year destroyed the local mobile-phone tower.
Adamu Garba, a teacher, said the attackers first set ablaze the school’s administrative block, then moved to the hostels, where they locked students in and firebombed the buildings.
He said: “Students were trying to climb out of the windows and they were slaughtered like sheep by the terrorists, who slit their throats. Others who ran were gunned down.” Those who could not escape were burned alive, he added.
The attack brings the death toll blamed on Boko Haram to more than 300 civilians this month alone.
The name of the terrorist network translates as “western education is forbidden”.
The school attack is the first one reported this year by suspected fighters from the network. The Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan, said the Boko Haram attacks were “worrisome”.
Thousands of Nigerians have lost family members, houses, businesses and livelihoods in the four-year rebellion.
Some regional officials have claimed the military is losing its war to halt the Islamist uprising in the north-east of Nigeria. The military has said recent attacks are being perpetrated by militants who have escaped a sustained aerial bombardment and ground assaults on forest hideouts along the border with Cameroon.
The US secretary of state, John Kerry, condemned the “unspeakable violence and acts of terror” by Boko Haram and said his country was helping the Nigerian authorities to combat the group.
Refugees who have escaped to neighbouring states have said they were forced to flee both the extremists and the fallout from a military campaign in which soldiers have been accused of gross human rights abuses, including executions of people suspected of helping Boko Haram.
“Everybody is living in fear,” the local government chairman, Maina Ularamu, said after Izghe village, in neighbouring Adamawa state, was attacked twice in a week this month , leaving 109 people dead.
Two weeks ago, 39 people were killed in an attack on the nearby village of Konduga. “There is no protection,” Ularamu added. “We cannot predict where and when they are going to attack. People can’t sleep with their eyes closed.”