- Associated Press - Thursday, February 16, 2012

LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — Attackers stormed a federal prison in Nigeria with heavy gunfire and explosives, killing one guard and freeing 118 inmates in a new assault demonstrating the continued instability in the nation, an official said Thursday.

The attack on the prison happened at Koton-Karifi, a town in Kogi state just south of Nigeria’s central capital, Abuja. The gunmen attacked just after 7 p.m. Wednesday, fighting through the prison gate and killing one guard in the process, said Nigeria Prisons Service spokesman Kayode Odeyemi.

Those inside the prison escaped in the fighting, with 118 inmates known to be missing Thursday afternoon, Mr. Odeyemi said. However, local prison official Hadijha Aminu said guards still hadn’t completed a head count and didn’t know how many prisoners actually were inside the prison at the time of the attack.

The government said an investigation into the attack had begun.

“One does not really know why” the gunmen attacked, Mr. Odeyemi said. “It might be that some of the armed robbers are trying to free the armed robbers there awaiting trial.”

The prison held armed robbers and kidnappers, Mr. Odeyemi said. He said he did not know if the prison held any members of a radical Islamist sect known as Boko Haram, which has been plaguing the country with violence over the last year.

Boko Haram launched a similar massive prison break in Bauchi state in September 2010 that freed about 700 inmates there. The style of the attack Wednesday, which apparently used explosives and heavy gunfire, matched that previous assault by the sect.

Members of the sect have been blamed for killing at least 286 people this year alone, according to an Associated Press count. The sect’s violence comes as part of a campaign which its leader, Abubakar Shekau, says is aimed at avenging Muslim deaths, freeing imprisoned members and pushing for strict Shariah law across multiethnic Nigeria, a nation of more than 160 million people.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for the prison attack, nor did authorities say they had any suspects immediately in mind. If Boko Haram carried out Wednesday night’s attack, it would be the farthest strike south the group has made. Nigeria is largely split between a Christian south and a Muslim north. Much of Boko Haram’s previous attacks have taken place largely in the north.

Nigeria’s prisons remain overcrowded and understaffed, with the majority of those imprisoned awaiting trials for years that likely never will 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.

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