The killings Monday come as besieged, underpaid and enraged soldiers remain targets of guerrilla attacks by the extremist Islamist sect, Boko Haram, which holds this city in the grip of bloody violence.
That anger among the enlisted men and officers stationed throughout Nigeria's northeast has seen civilians harassed, arrested, tortured and even killed—raising concerns that Monday's attack may just be the tip of killings committed by security forces, human rights activists warn.
"This is just the latest in a number of incidents in Maiduguri where soldiers have allegedly committed serious abuses, including extrajudicial killings of community members following Boko Harm attacks," said Eric Guttschuss, who studies Nigeria for Human Rights Watch.
A bombing Monday morning by suspected members of Boko Haram that a soldier said killed a lieutenant sparked the violent retaliation. The troops opened fire with assault rifles and heavy machine guns mounted on armored personnel carriers on a busy street in Maiduguri, near the local headquarters of the Nigerian Union of Journalists.
An Associated Press journalist saw more than 50 shops and homes burned in the attacks Monday, with the bodies of civilians lying alongside the streets. The dead carried no weapons, nor any sign they belonged to the sect or posed a threat to the soldiers.
Footage aired Tuesday afternoon by the state-run Nigerian Television Authority showed people trying to splash water on their burning homes after the attack, while others fearfully raised their hands above their heads as a government motorcade sped past.
On Tuesday, a worker at Maiduguri General Hospital told the AP that officials collected 32 corpses after the attack. The hospital turned away other bodies as its morgue was full, the worker said, with bodies of the dead on the floors for hours. The worker spoke on condition of anonymity, out of fear of angering soldiers.
The worker said the remaining bodies were taken to the nearby Umaru Shehu Ultra-Modern Hospital. Officials there declined to talk Tuesday to an AP journalist.
In statements Tuesday, military spokesman Lt. Col. Sagir Musa denied that soldiers killed civilians and blamed the resulting fires and damage that went on for blocks on the single bomb that targeted soldiers earlier that morning. He did not explain how the dozens of civilians were shot dead.
While widely considered to have one of the strongest militaries in Africa, Nigeria's armed forces have been accused of killing civilians in the past—including after abandoning military rule for an uneasy democracy. In 1999, ethnic Ijaw activists claimed more than 200 civilians were killed by the military in Odi in Bayelsa state. In 2001, soldiers burned down seven villages in Benue state and killed at least 150 civilians in the midst of ethnic violence there.
Another military raid in Nigeria's oil-rich Delta state against militants there killed 100 people, activists said, though soldiers blocked AP journalists from reaching the area at the time.
Lucy Freeman, who studies Nigeria for Amnesty International, said her advocacy group remained concerned about the killings Monday in Maiduguri and called for an independent investigation.
"To execute a person who is already in the custody of security forces or otherwise under their control ... (can) constitute a crime under international law for which those responsible must be brought to justice," Freeman said Tuesday.
The killing of civilians comes as Boko Haram continues its bloody guerrilla campaign against Nigeria's weak central government. The sect, whose name means "Western education is sacrilege" in the Hausa language of Nigeria's north, is blamed for killing more than 690 people in drive-by killings and bombings this year alone, according to an AP count. The sect has demanded the release of all its captive members and has called for strict Shariah law to be implemented across the entire country.
The sect has killed both Christians and Muslims in their attacks, as well as soldiers and security forces. Nigeria's military has claimed it has killed a number of the sect's senior leadership in recent days, including operational commanders and the sect's spokesman, who used the nom de guerre Abul Qaqa. However, the sect's leader, Abubakar Shekau, has eluded capture and continues to make Internet videos that taunt and threaten further violence against Nigerian government officials and security forces.
For now, activists worry that while Boko Haram remains a shadowy and hidden group, soldiers will take their rage out on civilians nearby. And as Nigeria's military continues to publish body counts following its operations, some fear those tallies may include innocent bystanders caught up in the violence simply by living nearby.
Meanwhile, the country's leaders remain apparently unable to halt the mounting casualties, including the killings of more than 20 university students recently in the nation's northeast.
Nigeria's leaders "barricade themselves behind tall, reinforced concrete fences and bulletproof cars. They move with a fearsome retinue of guards, soldiers and police," columnist Okey Ndibe wrote in Tuesday's edition of The Daily Sun newspaper. "They don't realize that their so-called security is a lie, a huge illusion. They don't reckon that the monster abroad in the land is growing stronger and fiercer by the day, and will soon lay siege on their doors."
Jon Gambrell reported from Lagos, Nigeria, and can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.