Nigerian Elections: Gunmen Kill 39 During Tense Presidential Vote

 / Updated  / Source: NBC News

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ABUJA, Nigeria — Witnesses and officials say Boko Haram extremists killed 39 people, including a legislator, in northeastern Nigeria, disrupting the country's presidential election.

All the attacks took place in the northeast where the military Friday announced it had cleared the Islamic extremists from all major centers. Residents of the town of Miringa say Boko Haram militants torched people's homes early Saturday and then shot them as they tried to escape. Twenty-five reportedly died.

Witnesses and officials say another 14 people, including Gombe state legislator Umaru Ali, died later Saturday in attacks on the towns of Biri and Dukku.

Boko Haram militants, who are trying to revive a medieval Islamic caliphate in religiously-mixed Nigeria, reject democracy. Leader Abubakar Shekau has threatened to kill Nigerians who go to vote.

The poll is seen as the first election in which an opposition candidate has a serious chance of unseating the incumbent, President Goodluck Jonathan, but widespread fears it could trigger violence are already becoming reality. The tense race pits Jonathan against former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari with an electorate divided along a complex mix of ethnic, regional and in some cases religious lines. Twelve other minor candidates are also running.

Polls were meant to open for accreditation at 120,000 ballot stations at 8 a.m. (3 a.m. ET), with actual voting starting at 1:30 p.m. and continuing until the last person has voted. With 56.7 million eligible voters, authorities knew it could drag well into Sunday, and Nigeria's electoral commission said by late afternoon that it would extend voting into an extra day in polling stations that had technical issues with identity card-reading machines.

Image: Men wait in line to register to vote in a poling station during elections in Kano
Men wait in line to register to vote in a poling station during elections in Kano March 28, 2015. Nigeria's electoral commission said on Saturday it would extend voting into an extra day in polling stations that had technical issues with biometric card-reading machines.GORAN TOMASEVIC / Reuters

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