ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) — A shootout at Nigeria's State Security Services headquarters near the presidential villa killed at least 21 people Sunday, a government spokeswoman said of what appears to be an attempted jailbreak by Islamic extremists.
Residents described shooting that went on for more than two hours Sunday morning.
Security services spokeswoman Marilyn Ogar tried to minimize the event, saying it involved one detainee who tried to disarm a guard by hitting him on the back of his head with his handcuffs. Ogar's statement said the only shots fired were warnings by guards and soldiers who quickly deployed around the perimeter of the compound, fearing collaborators from the outside.
Later Sunday Ogar reported 21 deaths — but did not specify if the fatalities included security agents and soldiers. She said two "service personnel" were seriously injured.
Residents described a shootout that began at about 7 a.m., when detainees are served breakfast, and continued until after 9 a.m.
"Whatever this is, it appears more serious than an attempted jailbreak claimed by the SSS," said a tweet posted by Nasir El-Rufai, a former Cabinet minister who lives in the neighborhood. He said there were exchanges of gunfire and a helicopter gunship hovering overhead.
"What I witnessed with my eyes and heard this morning was a full-scale battle," tweeted another former Cabinet minister, Femi Fani-Kayode. He said he lives 50 meters (55 yards) from the state security headquarters and the presidential villa called Aso Rock.
Agents at the scene said a detainee received a smuggled pistol along with his breakfast, and used it to shoot a guard who had unlocked his handcuffs so he could eat. It was unclear if the guard survived. The agents spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to reporters.
Jailbreaks are common in Nigeria, often aided by corrupt officials. But not from the state security headquarters which holds suspects of special interest including alleged fighters in the northeastern Islamic uprising that has killed more than 1,000 people this year.
That insurgency is led by the Boko Haram terrorist network that on March 14 staged a daring jailbreak in an attack on Giwa Barracks, the main military barracks in the northeastern city of Maiduguri. Hundreds of detainees held at the barracks were freed. The military said it killed hundreds of them. Hospital workers said they counted 425 corpses at the morgue, the worst fatalities recorded in the 4-year-old uprising.
Associated Press writer Michelle Faul contributed to this report from Lagos, Nigeria.