JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Dozens of people, including many civilians, died in gun battles between Nigerian security forces and Islamist militants in recent days, according to Nigerian officials.
However, reports of the number of casualties varied, with some government officials saying about 185 people were slain while security officials put the death toll lower.
The fighting began Friday in Baga, a fishing community near Lake Chad in northeastern Nigeria, but news of the violence only reached Abuja, the capital, late Sunday.
Nigeria has been grappling with a devastating rebellion by an Islamist militia, Boko Haram, which has left thousands dead in hundreds of attacks across the north in recent years. Baga is in Borno state, Boko Haram's birthplace.
Despite a heavy military crackdown, Nigerian authorities have been unable to halt attacks or weaken the group, which is popular in parts of the region. Boko Haram opposes secularism and Western-style education. It has blown up bank ATMs and mobile phone masts, and attacked police stations, churches and the United Nations headquarters in Abuja.
Hundreds of Baga residents who fled into the bush during the battles began returning Sunday to find many homes burned to the ground or heavily damaged. Some reports suggested that as many as 2,000 houses were destroyed.
A local official said 185 bodies had been buried, the Associated Press reported, but it was unclear how many of them were civilians and how many combatants.
Borno state military spokesman Sagir Musa said those reports were highly inflated.
"There could have been some casualties, but it is unthinkable to say that 185 people died," Musa said, according to Agence France-Presse. "On my honor as an officer, nothing like that happened."
During the intense fighting, security forces and Boko Haram fighters exchanged automatic weapons fire in civilian neighborhoods. Military officials said the militants deployed heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades and used the civilian population as "human shields."
Groups such as Human Rights Watch have in the past accused Nigerian security forces of indiscriminately killing civilians in revenge attacks on Boko Haram.
Local residents witnessed security forces setting the fires that burned down many neighborhoods, the AP reported.
The fighting broke out after Boko Haram militants killed a military officer, news agencies reported. Nigerian security forces then surrounded a mosque that they described as a base for militants.
The battles between Nigeria's military and Boko Haram came just days after President Goodluck Jonathan offered an amnesty to the group. It also followed the release Friday of a family of French hostages held by Boko Haram.
Jonathan set up a committee last week to implement the amnesty and surrender of weapons. However, the heavy fighting over the weekend raises doubts about whether Boko Haram is likely to agree to an amnesty.
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