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Feb 1, 7:46 AM EST

Extremists attack biggest city in northeast Nigeria


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MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (AP) -- Islamic extremists attacked Maiduguri, the biggest city in northeast Nigeria from four fronts overnight with the crescendo of warfare - booming cannon and whooshing rockets - continuing Sunday, witnesses said.

Some civilians in the besieged city of 2 million, crowded with another 200,000 refugees from the fighting, are being killed by stray grenades and bombs dropped from a Nigerian Air Force fighter jet, witnesses said.

For weeks Boko Haram has been closing in on Maiduguri, the birthplace of the extremists, and if it were able to plant its Islamic State-style flag there, even briefly, it would be a morale booster as the group loses ground in remoter areas, said Jacob Zenn, author of a book about the insurgents.

Its third attack in a week on Maiduguri comes as Chadian forces launch a winning offensive, acting on an African Union directive for Nigeria's neighbors to help fight the spreading Islamic uprising by Nigeria's home-grown Boko Haram extremists.

International outrage has grown over increasingly ferocious attacks that culminated in the slaughter of hundreds of civilians in Baga on Jan. 3.

A Chadian jet fighter supported by ground troops bombed the extremists out of Gamboru and Kolfata on Saturday and from Malumfatori on Thursday, witnesses said.

Chadian troops in Kolfata were "dancing around their country's flag and chanting," farmer Awami Kolobe said, quoting refugees who returned across the border from Cameroon. The towns had been under the sway of Boko Haram for months. Gamboru is about 140 kilometers (85 miles) northeast of Maiduguri, and Baga is another 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of Gamboru, on Lake Chad, where Nigeria's borders converge with Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

African leaders at a summit Saturday authorized the creation of a 7,500-strong multinational force to fight Boko Haram.

It comes as Nigerians prepare for a closely contested Feb. 14 presidential election. Boko Haram denounces democracy.

In Maiduguri, a senior army officer said the militants were "everywhere," attacking from all four roads leading into the city. The officer spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to speak to reporters.

All exits are blocked. The international airport has been closed since the insurgents in December 2013 launched a major attack.

Witnesses said a Nigerian jet dropped a bomb that hit several civilians near Giwa barracks. Ahmadu Marima said troops shot and killed five young men from a civilian self-defense group in his Abujantalakawa suburb, mistaking them for insurgents.

An elderly man and his granddaughter died when a rocket-propelled grenade exploded in their front garden, injuring a second girl, Marima said.

The government declared a state of emergency in three northeastern states in May 2013 after Boko Haram took control of dozens of villages and towns. Troops quickly drove the insurgents out but since then, ill-equipped and demoralized, have been losing ground.

In August, Boko Haram declared an Islamic caliphate and now holds about 130 towns and villages.

The uprising killed about 10,000 people last year, compared to about 2,000 in the first four years, according to the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations.

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Associated Press writer Michelle Faul contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal.

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