Gunmen kill students as they sleep in Nigerian college


* President calls attacks the "creation of the devil"

* Police suspect Islamist sect Boko Haram responsible

* Young men taken outside to be killed, shot fleeing

* Boko Haram is biggest security threat in Nigeria

By Joe Hemba

DAMATURU, Nigeria, Sept 29 (Reuters) - Suspected Islamistmilitants stormed a college in northeastern Nigeria and shotdead around 40 male students, some of them while they sleptearly on Sunday, witnesses said.

The gunmen, thought to be members of rebel sect Boko Haram,attacked one hostel, took some students outside before killingthem and shot others trying to flee, people at the scene toldReuters.

Boko Haram, which wants to establish an Islamic state innorthern Nigeria, has intensified attacks on civilians in recentweeks in revenge for a military offensive against itsinsurgency. Several schools, seen as the focus of Western-styleeducation and culture, have been targeted.

President Goodluck Jonathan described the assault as "thecreation of the devil" and suggested it might be time to changetactics against the rebels, without going into details.

"They started gathering students into groups outside, thenthey opened fire and killed one group and then moved onto thenext group and killed them. It was so terrible," said onesurviving student Idris, who would only give his first name.

"They came with guns around 1 a.m. (2400 GMT) and wentdirectly to the male hostel and opened fire on them ... Thecollege is in the bush so the other students were running aroundhelplessly as guns went off and some of them were shot down,"said Ahmed Gujunba, a taxi driver who lives by the college.

Bodies were recovered from dormitories, classrooms andoutside in the undergrowth on Sunday, a member of staff at thecollege told Reuters, asking not to be named.

Boko Haram and spin-off Islamist groups like the alQaeda-linked Ansaru have become the biggest security threat inAfrica's second largest economy and top oil exporter.

Western governments are increasingly worried about thethreat posed by Islamist groups across Africa, from Mali andAlgeria in the Sahara, to Kenya in the east, where Somalia'sal-Shabaab fighters killed at least 67 people in an attack on aNairobi shopping mall a week ago.


A Reuters witness counted 40 bloody corpses piled on thefloor at the main hospital in Yobe state capital Damaturu onSunday, mostly of young men believed to be students.

The bodies were brought from the college, which is in Gujba,a rural area 30 miles (50km) south of Damaturu and around 130miles from Nigerian borders with Cameroon and Niger.

State police commissioner Sanusi Rufai said he suspectedBoko Haram was behind the attack but gave no details.

Thousands have been killed since Boko Haram launched itsuprising in 2009, turning itself from a clerical movementopposed to Western culture into an armed militia with growinglinks to al Qaeda's West African wing.

President Jonathan declared a state of emergency in threenortheastern states in May, including Yobe, and ordered amilitary offensive to crush Boko Haram's insurgency.

There was an initial lull in the violence as Islamists fledbases in cities, forests and mountains. Then the militants beganrevenge attacks on schools, security forces and civiliansbelieved to be helping them.

"When I declared a state of emergency things calmed down.Now they are looking for soft targets ... If the drum ischanging, we must change steps," Jonathan said in a speech inthe capital Abuja.

"The people they killed they don't even know them. This isthe creation of the devil ... No Boko Haram or any group canfrustrate this country ... I assure Nigerians we'll do what isrequired to protect them," he added.

In July, suspected Boko Haram militants killed 27 studentsand a teacher at a school in Potiskum, a town about 30 milesfrom the site of Sunday's attack.

Several hundred people have died in assaults over the pastfew weeks. Some observers say the army offensive has onlysucceeded in pushing attacks away from well-guarded large townsand cities into vulnerable rural areas.

Boko Haram's insurgency is also putting pressure on theeconomy of Africa's most populous nation. Nigeria's securityspending has risen to more than 1 trillion naira ($6.26 billion)per year, or around 20 percent of the federal budget.

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