Tokunbo Adedoja,Onyebuchi Ezigbo, Yemi Akinsuyi and Michael Olugbode
Barely 24 hours after two suicide bombers attacked a church in the premises of the Armed Forces Command and Staff College (AFCSC), Jaji, in Kaduna State, there was another major security breach in Abuja yesterday, when unidentified gunmen stormed the premises of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) in the early hours, killing two policemen and freeing 30 detainees.
Twenty-five of the detainees who escaped are said to have been re-arrested, while the remaining five were still at large as at the time of filing this report.
Two of the attackers, who were believed to have stormed the premises of SARS located along the Nnamdi Azikiwe Express Way, Guzape District in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja, were also arrested.
During the attack, a riot police officer and a police inspector, Fakat Zaremi, were killed during the exchange of gunfire, while one of the gunmen was alleged to have been killed.
Emmanuel Domsing, a lawyer and younger brother of the slain Inspector Zaremi, said he was informed early in the morning that Zaremi was killed by the gunmen while on duty.
“I was called that my elder brother was killed during the attack, but information is scanty on what actually transpired,” he stated.
Though no group has claimed responsibility for the pre-dawn raid on the SARS office, the attack, which police authorities said they successfully repelled, is suspected to have been masterminded by the Islamic sect, Boko Haram.
But some hours after the attack on the SARS headquarters, the Islamic sect again made another offer to the Federal Government to dialogue.
SARS is a unit of the Nigeria Police Force saddled with responsibility of handling arrests and investigation of armed robbers and other hardened criminals.
But because of the huge security challenges posed by Boko Haram, suspected members of the religious sect are also held at the SARS detention centre.
Obviously conscious of the security implication of yesterday’s attack, a statement from the Police Public Relations Officer, Frank Mba, said no suspect held for terror-related charges escaped from the detention facilities.
However, a recent report by Amnesty International on Boko Haram, titled, ‘Nigeria: Trapped in the Cycle of Violence’, had given a graphic description of the detention centre situated in Abuja.
The report had claimed that over 100 people arrested in connection with crimes related to Boko Haram attacks had been detained at the SARS detention facility in Abuja, known as the “abattoir”.
The Amnesty International report claimed that at the SARS detention centre located in a disused abattoir on top of a hill outside the city, detainees were held in a vast warehouse previously used for slaughtering cattle, with chains still hanging from the ceiling.
When THISDAY arrived at the scene yesterday morning, there was a massive security cordon at the detention centre, situated at the foot of a sprawling hill, which ordinarily should have been a natural barrier against such attacks.
About nine police patrol vehicles and two armoured personnel carriers (APCs) were stationed close to the gate, while men of the Police Anti-bomb Squad also took positions within the premises.
Just as THISDAY crew was sourcing for more information on the attack, the Inspector-General of Police (IG), Mohammed Abubakar arrived the facility around 12.30 pm in a long convoy and was briefed by the SARS Commander and the FCT Commissioner of Police, Adenrele Shinaba.
After being conducted round the premises, Abubakar immediately went into a closed-door meeting with some senior police officers present and constituted a high-powered investigative panel headed by a senior police officer to probe the circumstances surrounding the incident.
The meeting lasted for about two hours before a visibly rattled IG headed back to the police headquarters without speaking to the press who were not too far from the gate.
A few minutes into the meeting, a white bus loaded with persons suspected to be some of the re-arrested detainees, drove into the premises.
However, it could not be confirmed if they had just been re-arrested or were being brought from the hospital, as reporters were not allowed to move close to the gate.
A photo-journalist with Daily Independent, Jide Oyekunle, was arrested, beaten and detained by the police for attempting to take pictures of the SARS office after the invasion by the gunmen.
A resident of the area told THISDAY that gunshots were heard some minutes after 2 am, followed by a rampaging noise, suspected to have been made by the detainees as they made their getaway.
The resident, however, said explosions were not heard during the attack, confirming the statement issued by the police that no explosive or IED-related materials were used during the attack.
Mba, in a statement, said 30 suspects broke out of their cells and attempted to escape, but 25 of them were re-arrested through “tactical and coordinated efforts”.
He said: “In the early hours of today, November 26, 2012, at about 2 am, unknown gunmen in large numbers attacked the premises of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad of the Federal Territory Police Command.
“Policemen on duty responded swiftly and engaged the gunmen in a gun battle that lasted for some minutes, at the end of which the gunmen were successfully repelled.
“However, in the confusion that ensued, about 30 suspects in the detention facilities of SARS broke out of the cells and attempted to escape.
“Tactical and coordinated efforts to re-arrest the fleeing suspects yielded instant results. So far, 25 of the suspects have been re-arrested, while five suspects originally being held in relation to robbery related offences are currently at large.
“Two policemen died during the operation, while two of the attackers have been arrested.”
Mba explained that no suspect held for terror-related charges escaped from the SARS detention facilities and “no explosive or IED-related materials were used in the botched attack”.
He said the IG had personally visited the scene of the incident to assess the situation and had ordered water tight security around all government and police-related facilities nationwide.
The police appealed for calm and assured the public of their preparedness to secure lives and property.
Meanwhile, a purported senior member of the Islamist militant group, Boko Haram, has distributed a letter requesting talks with the Federal Government.
According to Reuters, the letter was signed by Sheik Abu Mohammed Ibn Abdulazeez, a man known by local security sources to be a sect member but considered to be a moderate.
If the letter is genuine, it would appear to mark a change of tact for the Islamists group.
The letter was handed to the national head of the union of journalists, Aba Kakami, who has often received and distributed statements from the sect, usually claiming attacks against high profile targets or warning of them.
Communication with the sect has been even more sporadic than normal since the military killed their spokesman Abu Qaqa in September in a gun battle.
Abdulazeez first contacted journalists in Maiduguri earlier this month, setting conditions for peace talks in teleconference and nominating former military ruler and northerner Muhammadu Buhari as a mediator. Buhari has since declined the offer.
"We are by this letter of invitation to our respected elders proving to government that we are not joking with the government, but we are awaiting the response of those concerned," the letter said.
Abdulazeez said he was speaking on behalf of Abubakar Shekau, the sect's leader.
But even if Abdulazeez does represent Shekau, the extent to which Boko Haram is controlled by Shekau is in doubt, and analysts think military pressure has fragmented it.
The letter nominated as mediator Imam Gabchiya, an official from the University of Maiduguri, Borno State.
There was no immediate reaction from government officials, but President Goodluck Jonathan penultimate Sunday, during a televised media chat, had said no talks were going on with Boko Haram while they remained faceless and in the shadows.
The handover of the letter came three days after Nigeria's army offered a N290 million bounty for information leading to the capture of 19 leading members of the sect.
Despite their offer to open talks, gunmen believed to be members of Boko Haram invaded Magumeri, a town in Borno State, killing Alhaji Tar Kusurambe, the chairman of the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP) in the local government area.
His killing occurred 24 hours after the district head of Gudumbali, Alhaji Zanna Mulima, and a businessman in Bama, Alhaji Dala Bama, were also killed in the state.
According to sources, yesterday’s killing occurred at about 2 am in Magumeri after gunmen had invaded his residence.
Kusurambe was said to have returned two days ago from Saudi Arabia where he had gone to perform the 2012 hajj.