By BosNewsLife Africa Service
ABUJA, NIGERIA (BosNewsLife)-- A Catholic aid group warned Monday, April 22, that a long-running insurgency in northern Nigeria is escalating after at least 185 people were killed in fighting between the military and the Islamist militant group Boko Haram.
The fighting in the northeastern fishing town of Baga, which began Friday, April 19, and lasted for hours, marked another setback for Christians and other residents in the region, explained Priest Evaristus Bassey, national director of Caritas Nigeria.
"It’s actually disappointing because there has been talk of amnesty and one of the leaders of Boko Haram came out to say that they were going to go on a ceasefire," he told Vatican Radio.
"So, we have been expecting a decrease in violence. So, it was surprising that that kind of violence escalated. And now we even have a higher level of weaponry, much more than what they were using before," he added.
Residents who managed to escape hid in the arid scrublands surrounding Baga, before returning Sunday afternoon to bury the dead, witnesses said. Homes, businesses and vehicles were reportedly burned and destroyed.
Additionally on April 20 gunmen reportedly pulled over a bus near the city of Maiduguri, demanding the passengers aboard to declare their faith. The gunmen then proceeded to kill six people who had confessed they were Christians, local Christians said.
Rights activists and aid workers say militants also embarked upon an "Islamization campaign" in the town of Gwoza, in Borno state, where residents were allegedly threatened by gunmen going door to door. The militants reportedly demanded that family members within each household profess allegiance to Islam.
Bassey expressed concerns that a crackdown on media keeps people in dangerous situations and delays sufficient aid from reaching those in need.
“Although what happens is that at a local level, the news media there is censored so the local people there don’t get to really know what is happening,” he added. “What they are trying to do is to not escalate the news, so that people have the sense that they are not living in insecurity but then it is a false security.”
Bassey said Caritas Nigeria was still assessing how it could send aid to the region after this weekend’s "massacre". He said the group planned to help with healthcare and food assistance.
The clashes over the weekend came amid mounting concerns that Nigeria is face a battle between rival terrorist groups after religious Christian militants threatened to attack Muslim targets in response to bombings carried out by the Islamist group Boko Haram.
The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), the umbrella body of armed groups in Nigeria's oil-rich Niger Delta, said last week it would launch a new terror campaign "in defense of Christianity".
"The bombings of mosques, hajj camps, Islamic institutions, large congregations in Islamic events and assassinations of clerics that propagate doctrines of hate will form the core mission of this crusade," the Mend spokesman Jomo Gbomo said in an emailed statement.
Evangelical, Bible-believing Christians usually distance themselves from revenge attacks.
The Joint Task Force, a Nigerian military unit that targets Boko Haram, denounced the statement, saying MEND no longer existed.
"Those attempting to christen themselves MEND today are impostors and a bundle of 'never-do-wells' who want to be accorded undue recognition at the expense of the peace currently savored in the Niger Delta," said Lt. Col. Onyema Nwachukwa, a JTF spokesman.
New details have also emerged about Easter season attacks against Christians that killed at least 80 people in the troubled nation.
Among those killed by suspected Muslim Fulani herdsmen on March 27 were 18 Christians in Mile-Bakwai village in the Bokkos area of Plateau state.
The 18 slain were members of Nigerian Baptist Convention, Christ Apostolic Church and Church of Christ in Nigeria (COCIN) congregations, local Christians said.
Reverend James Danladi Mahwash of the Bishara Baptist Church in Mile Bakwai village said in published remarks that five of his church members were killed, including the financial secretary of the Men’s Missionary Union of his church, 25-year-old Jamle Benjamin Sunday.
The violence has been encouraged by groups such as Boko Haram, which means 'Western education is a sin', and aims to carve-out an Islamic state from Nigeria, Africa's largest oil producer.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian, has come under pressure to improve protection of Christians, who comprise roughly half of Nigeria's 158 million people.
Jonathan claims his security forces have stepped up patrols in key regions, though there have been reports of human rights abuses by at least some government troops.
Boko Haram has been linked to ongoing attacks against churches and Christian populations in northern Nigeria, which some estimate have killed nearly 1,750 people, including Christians and Muslims, since 2010, according to figures monitored by BosNewsLife.
(BosNewsLife, the first truly independent news agency covering persecuted Christians, is 'Breaking the News for Compassionate Professionals' since 2004).
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