Gunmen have attacked a train travelling from the Nigerian capital, Abuja, to the city of Kaduna, in an “unprecedented” act of violence that will heighten concerns about a breakdown of security in the country’s troubled northern region.
The death toll is unclear but a local security official told Reuters two train staff and five security personnel had been killed. A senator in Kaduna state separately said three cleaning staff on the train had died. Many others were injured and there were fears that an unknown number had been abducted.
Authorities could not immediately confirm the number of passengers on the train but local media reported that nearly 1,000 people were onboard.
The attackers used explosives to blow up the rail track before opening fire, according to Fidet Okhiria, the chief executive of the state-owned Nigerian Railway Corporation. “There were casualties but we have not been able to confirm the number,” Okhiria told Associated Press, describing the nature of the attack as unprecedented.
The attack occurred in Katari in Kaduna state, 55 miles from Abuja, on Monday evening. Many Nigerians use the railway as a safer alternative to the road route between Abuja and Kaduna, which for years has been one of the most dangerous in Nigeria because of kidnappings and armed bandits. No group has claimed responsibility for Monday night’s attack but suspicion will fall on bandit groups.A Kaduna government official said passengers trapped on the train and others who had escaped to nearby forests were evacuated on Tuesday morning.
The attack is the most significant on the railway line from the capital since it began operating in 2016. It came two days after gunmen attacked Kaduna airport, killing a security guard before soldiers intervened.
Details of the latest incident emerged on Monday night, when passengers posted on social media that they were being shot at. One passenger who posted on Twitter during the attack that she had been shot later died, her colleagues said.
Some passengers complained that the attack continued for at least an hour before soldiers arrived to rescue them.
Video footage broadcast by local media showed passengers with bullet wounds and damaged carriages.
It has not been possible to establish a precise death toll. A senator in Kaduna, Shehu Sani, said passengers and police reported multiple deaths. “Police officers confirmed that three train cleaners were killed. My friend’s wife, who was on the train, also said many people in her carriage were killed and injured and many kidnapped and taken away into the bush,” he said. “I got distress calls from some of the passengers. Even from the call you can hear the gunshots.”
The security situation in Kaduna had been gradually deteriorating, Sani said. “We used to travel by road, and the bandits blocked the road. Then we resorted to using the trains. Now this incident.”
Samuel Aruwan, a commissioner for defence at the Kaduna state government, said injured passengers had been taken to hospitals and that the government would cover the cost of their treatment. Relatives of the injured have made public appeals for people in Kaduna to donate blood.
Federal authorities have yet to release a statement.
Much of north-west and central Nigeria has been in the grip of attacks by so-called bandit groups, proscribed terrorists in Nigeria, who have carried out mass killings mainly in villages, rural towns and motorways. The groups – mostly ethnic Fulanis – have kidnapped thousands of people for ransom as well as killing, stealing and committing acts of sexual violence.
They emerged from a historical conflict that has worsened dramatically, between largely Fulani pastoralists and farmers of varying ethnic groups, over access to water and land and the boundaries between private farmland and grazing areas.
In recent years, the groups have overwhelmed communities and been more heavily armed than local police forces and vigilante groups. Kidnaps for ransom, targeting schoolchildren, ordinary civilians, prominent figures and their relatives have boomed in recent years. The groups have in effect occupied many communities in north-west and central Nigeria, punishing communities that cooperate with authorities and demanding levies.
Jihadist groups have also become increasingly active in north-west Nigeria, exploiting the lack of security and in some cases working with bandits to carry out kidnaps.
Airstrikes have been launched on the hideouts of armed groups in a forested expanse stretching from northern Nigeria into Niger but the attacks have continued.