Maiduguri (Nigeria) (AFP) - Suspected Boko Haram Islamists attacked a series of churches on Sunday near Chibok, the northeast Nigeria town where more than 200 teenage girls were kidnapped in April, with dozens feared dead, witnesses said.
Residents said the gunmen riding on motorcycles opened fire on worshippers and pursued them as they tried to flee into the surrounding bush.
The attackers hurled explosives into churches as services were ongoing and torched several buildings, witnessed further reported.
The targeted villages have been identified as Kwada, Ngurojina, Karagau, Kautikari, all in Borno state, the stronghold of the Islamist group which has killed thousands during a five-year extremist uprising.
"The attackers went to churches with bombs and guns," Timothy James, a Chibok resident said by phone, explaining that the villages were within 10 kilometres (six miles) of Chibok.
"From what I gathered, dozens of worshippers, including men, women and children were killed," he said.
His information had come people who fled the affected area and through phone calls.
- Under attack -
Enoch Mark, an outspoken Chibok leader since the April 14 kidnappings, gave a similar account, saying the raid was ongoing: "presently, as we are talking now, we are under attack".
"I was told the attackers burnt at least three churches to the ground," he added.
He said the community would be able to get a more accurate death toll once the violence abated, but feared the dead numbered in the dozens and that gunmen were firing on people as they ran into the surrounding bushlands.
Boko Haram, which has said it wants to create a strict Islamic state in Nigeria's mainly Muslim north, has attacked churches throughout its insurgency.
According to Mark, the military did not responded to distress calls after the attack began.
"They just went and got a hiding place in the bush," he told AFP.
While it was not immediately possible to verify the charge, if true, it would likely raise further questions about the military effort in the northeast.
Following the April abduction of 276 girls by Boko Haram from a secondary school in Chibok, parents and local leaders accused the military of doing almost nothing to secure the release of the hostages.
Fifty-seven of the girls escaped within days of the nighttime raid on the school and local officials have said that 219 are still being held.
International outrage has spread since the kidnappings and Nigeria has promised to better secure in the northeast, which has been under a state of emergency since May of last year.
A local government official in Chibok who confirmed the attack and requested anonymity said Nigeria needed to step up its fight against Boko Haram, as residents in the northeast were being left to die with little protection.
"The federal government must do the right thing by taking the fight to the terrorists," he told AFP.
In the weeks after the shocking April abductions, a social media campaign involving prominent world leaders and celebrities drew unprecedented attention to the Boko Haram conflict.
Nigeria has accepted help from major world powers including the United States, France and Britain to rescue the hostage schoolgirls and improve its counter-insurgency tactics.
Some analysts had hoped that increased cooperation with Western militaries including intelligence sharing could help Nigeria cut down on Boko Haram attacks, which have been a relentless and often daily occurence throughout the year.
But so far the gains have been limited and the Chibok government official said the community was struggling to understand why they were consistently being left unguarded.
"It is beyond our comprehension that the terrorists are coming out in daylight to kill people," with no resistance from troops, he told AFP.