MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
In northeastern Nigeria, a brutal attack on a boarding school is the latest sign of the rise of Islamist militants and the inability of the government to stop them. The attack came in the pre-dawn hours on Tuesday and details of the massacre are gruesome. At least 59 students were killed. Many were burned alive, after militants set fire to a locked dormitory. Students who tried to escape were shot and their throats were slit. They slaughtered them like sheep. That's the way one teacher described the attack to the Associated Press.
Michelle Faul is the AP's chief Africa correspondent and she joins me now from Lagos. And, Michelle, what more can you tell us about this attack itself?
MICHELLE FAUL: Well, it's, you know, the latest in a string of ever deadlier attacks. In this particular case, there was a unit of soldiers based at a checkpoint on a road leading to the school. And they were there specifically to protect the school. Community leaders say that roadblock was withdrawn for unknown reasons hours before the extremists hit.
BLOCK: That would suggest some level of collusion between the military and the group responsible, Boko Haram.
FAUL: Well, the Nigerian military itself has arrested soldiers who have been accused of aiding Boko Haram terrorists and of passing on information to them. So this is not surprising but I think a rather stunning way to learn of it.
BLOCK: Michelle, as I understand it, there were girls who attended this school. They were allowed to leave. It was only boys who were killed. Is that right?
FAUL: It was and it was unusual for a Boko Haram attack. In the past, young girls and women have been abducted. In this case, they went to the two girls dormitories, called the girls out and told them that they should go home and get married, that they should forget about Western education, which they say is anathema to Islam.
BLOCK: I gather there's news that another school, an all-girls school has been ordered shut. Tell us about that.
FAUL: Yeah, this is like a sister school to the school that was attacked and a teacher told the AP that they got a directive from the federal ministry of education that the school was to shut down immediately and she said scores of girls have gone home and the school is now deserted.
BLOCK: The idea being it's being shut down for their own protection.
FAUL: Absolutely. But this is such a tragedy, Melissa. You know, the north of Nigeria is the least literate part of this country and the girls of the North are the least educated. You know, my fear is that you will find girls there who will go home now and who may never go back to school.
BLOCK: Let's talk a bit more about the group behind this attack, Boko Haram. The name means: Western education is forbidden, or is a sin. But I gather that it's no coincidence that they are now targeting schools as they did this week.
FAUL: They have been targeting schools or a while now. In this particular state, this was the fourth really big attack. They have burned down hundreds of schools in the northeast of Nigeria and their aim, they say, is to stop people being contaminated by Western education.
BLOCK: Well, what are local leaders in this part of Nigeria saying about the response and the responsibility of the Nigerian government?
FAUL: People are very angry and according to the governor of Borno state, he flew all the way down to Abuja to tell President Goodluck Jonathan that he believes that Boko Haram are better motivated and better armed than the Nigerian military.
BLOCK: And how did President Goodluck Jonathan respond to that?
FAUL: Well, President Jonathan had a press conference on Monday night in which I thought he was rather dismissive of the many attacks that have killed, at that point, more than 250 people this month alone. But he changed his tune after Tuesday morning's attack. President Jonathan put out the first statement that we've known him make about an individual attack in which he condemned the heinous brutal and mindless killing of guiltless students.
And he pledged that the armed forces of Nigeria and other security agents will continue to prosecute the war against terror with full vigor, diligence and determination.
BLOCK: Michelle Faul is chief Africa correspondent with the Associated Press. We reached her in Lagos, Nigeria. Michelle, thank you so much.
FAUL: Thank you, Melissa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.