LAGOS, Nigeria — Armed gunmen from a radical Islamist sect stormed a federal prison in Nigeria amid heavy gunfire and explosions, killing one guard and freeing 119 inmates in an assault marking its growing national ambitions, officials said Thursday.
The sect known as Boko Haram claimed it freed seven followers in the attack that happened just after 7 p.m. Wednesday in the town of Koton-Karifi in Kogi state, just south of Nigeria's capital Abuja. Though authorities declined to say the attack was the work of the group, it mirrored another massive prison break orchestrated by the sect in 2010.
The gunmen blasted through the prison's gate with a bomb and killed one guard in a firefight, officials said. Those inside the prison escaped in the fighting, though authorities had recaptured about 25 of them by late Thursday afternoon, local prison official Hadiza Aminu said.
The government said an investigation had begun into the attack.
"One does not really know why" the gunmen attacked, Nigeria Prisons Service spokesman Kayode Odeyemi said. "It might be that some of the armed robbers are trying to free the armed robbers there awaiting trial."
However, a spokesman using the nom de guerre Abul-Qaqa claimed the attack Thursday night in a conference call with journalists in Maiduguri, the sect's spiritual home in Nigeria's arid and dusty northeast.
"We staged the operation to rescue seven of our members there and Allah made it possible for the operation to be successful," the spokesman said. "Our members are now safely reunited in one of our camps".
Wednesday night's attack matched one Boko Haram launched in Bauchi state in September 2010 that freed about 700 inmates there. The sect spokesman said Thursday night attacks would continue until Nigeria's weak federal government releases all its detained members.
Members of the sect have been blamed for killing at least 287 people this year alone, according to an Associated Press count. The group's leader says its campaign of violence also is aimed at avenging Muslim deaths and pushing for strict Shariah law across multiethnic Nigeria, a nation of more than 160 million people.
The attack also represents the farthest strike south the group has made in its bloody campaign. Nigeria is largely split between a Christian south and a Muslim north, and most of Boko Haram's previous attacks have taken place largely in the north. However, the sect's attacks are beginning to widen distrust between the two faiths.
Nigeria's prisons remain overcrowded and understaffed, with the majority of those imprisoned awaiting trials for years that likely will never come. A 2007 study by Amnesty International called the system "appalling," with children remaining locked up with their parents and guards routinely bribed by inmates. Despite pledges by the government to reform the system, it remains largely the same today.
Haruna Umar in Maiduguri, Nigeria, contributed to this report.
Jon Gambrell can be reached at . http://www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP