MAIDUGURI, Nigeria: Twin car bomb blasts at a bustling marketplace killed at least 51 people in Maiduguri, the northeast Nigerian city that is the birthplace of Nigeria’s extremist group Boko Haram, a Red Cross official said Sunday.
Many more people are believed buried in rubble from the Saturday night explosions that collapsed some buildings and set others aflame with smoke billowing for hours, said the official who insisted on anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press.
The victims include children who were dancing at a wedding celebration and people watching a soccer match on an outdoor TV screen, survivors told The Associated Press on Sunday.
Fifty corpses were retrieved, said Hassan Ali, the leader of an anti-terror vigilante group.
The first blast came from a passenger car and did not cause many casualties, said Ali. Most of those killed had run to the scene to help when a second explosion blasted from a pickup truck carrying firewood, he said.
Survivors said they captured a man who jumped out of the first car, grabbed a tricycle taxi and tried to make off. He was badly beaten and taken to nearby Umaru Shehu General Hospital, where a security guard said all the wounded brought in had died.
Most spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
It was not known how many wounded are being treated in at least three hospitals in the city.
The attack is a major setback to a new army and air force offensive against the Islamic uprising under new commanders since President Goodluck Jonathan fired his entire military command.
Since then, criticism and anger have grown as attacks by extremists have increased and become ever deadlier: More than 300 people were killed in February alone.
The Defense Ministry has blamed recent attacks on militants escaping from daily aerial bombardments and ground assaults aimed at flushing them out of forest hideouts and mountain caves along the border with Cameroon. The military closed hundreds of kilometers (miles) of border with Cameroon last week, saying it wanted to stop extremists escaping across the border and using the neighboring country to launch attacks.
Anger against the military will be fueled by reports that a fighter jet targeting extremist hideouts bombed a northeastern village in Yobe state on Friday, killing at least 20 civilians.
The military knew there were alleged terrorists in Maiduguri because they reported on Friday that they had arrested several suspects, including “some picked up in Maiduguri and environs.”
Maiduguri is the headquarters of the military offensive and the air force fighting to suppress the 4-year-old Islamic uprising with the backing of draconian powers under a 9-month-old state of emergency.