helicopter gunships
Illustrative image. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Lagos: Nigerian helicopter gunships have killed more than 50 "bandits" during an operation in the restive northwest, regional authorities said on Tuesday.

Heavily armed gangs known locally as bandits have terrorised northwest and central Nigeria for years, raiding and looting villages, but the attacks have become even more violent in recent months.

"In an inspiring success for the security forces, over 50 bandits have been neutralised during a combined ground and air assault" in the Birnin Gwari district of Kaduna state, regional security official Samuel Aruwan said in a statement.

The armed bandits, on motorcycles, were spotted "waiting to ambush the ground forces", said Gwari.

"They were engaged vigorously by the helicopter gunship, and were wiped out," he added.

A second helicopter gunship joined the operation "and many more fleeing bandits were neutralised by precise strikes. Assessment revealed that more than 50 bandits were neutralised during the joint operation," the official said.

Northwest and central regions of Africa's most populous nation have long been troubled by tit-for-tat attacks between communities of nomadic herders and settled farmers who clash over water and land.

But violence has spiralled recently as criminal gangs emerged to carry out mass abductions, and this year they have turned their sights on schools to abduct pupils for ransom.

More than 1,000 students have been snatched since December in mass kidnappings, although most have been freed following negotiations after weeks or sometimes months in captivity.

Bandit gangs operate hideouts deep in forests that cut across several northwestern states. But past military operations and attempts to negotiate amnesties have failed to stop the violence.

On Sunday, in Sokoto state, also in the northwest, gunmen from a suspected criminal gang attacked a village market killing 43 people, according to the regional government.

Although the bandits have no known ideological agenda, concerns have grown of jihadist inroads in the region.

Since January 2020, about 50,000 people fled from their homes in the northwest alone, according to the International Organization for Migration.

More than 80,000 more people have fled to neighbouring Niger over the past two years.

To hamper communication between the criminal groups, the authorities have cut telephone networks in parts of the northwest, which sometimes prevents villagers from alerting the security forces of an attack.