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Authorities were searching for more than 700 inmates Wednesday who escaped after gunmen attacked a prison in northern Nigeria, police said.

A radical Muslim sect used assault rifles to launch a coordinated sunset raid on a prison in northern Nigeria, freeing more than 100 followers and raising new fears about violence in the oil-rich nation just months before elections.

The attack Tuesday night by the Boko Haram sect left the prison in ruins and showed the group had access to the sophisticated weapons it needed to overpower prison guards. Now the group seeking to impose strict Islamic law on Nigeria may want to take on the government directly, potentially bring a new wave of violence to Africa’s most populous nation.

The Nigerian government is “standing flat-footed. They’re on the defensive,” said Mark Schroeder, the director of sub-Saharan Africa analysis for STRATFOR, a private security think tank based in Austin, Texas.

The attackers went cell by cell at the prison in Bauchi, breaking open locks and setting fire to part of the prison before escaping during the confusion with more than 750 inmates, said Bauchi state police commissioner Danlami Yar’Adua.

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Five people – a soldier, a police officer, two prison guards and a civilian – died in the attack and six others remain in critical condition.

Members of Boko Haram – which means “Western education is sacrilege” in the local Hausa language – rioted and attacked police stations and private homes in July 2009, triggering a violent police and military crackdown during which more than 700 people died. More than 120 followers arrested in the wake of the attacks last year were being held at the Bauchi prison pending trial.

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