Lagos, Nigeria (CNN) -- Dozens of people have been killed during two days of clashes between Islamist militants and Nigerian security forces in a northeastern town, an army commander said.
Chief of Army Staff Azubuike Ihejirika said the latest violence in what is a simmering low-level insurgency in Africa's most populous country left soldiers dead and wounded. The fighting began Thursday between Boko Haram militants and the military in the Yobe state town of Damaturu.
"There was a major encounter with the Boko Haram in Damaturu," Ihejirika said Friday. "We lost three of our soldiers, seven were wounded. But we killed over 50 of their members."
That contradicted hospital and morgue workers who said the vast majority of some 50 bodies brought in since Friday were civilians.
An attack on Friday left at least a dozen dead in Maidugiri, in neighboring Borno state, officials and hospital workers said Saturday. Residents said pre-Christmas festivities have been subdued in the city -- largely Muslim with a Christian minority. It isn't clear whether Boko Haram attacked. Residents say the group was involved, but the military has not yet commented.
"The situation here is very scary -- the worst military confrontation yet," said one resident who requested anonymity.
Boko Haram -- which translates from the local Hausa as "Western education is outlawed -- wants to introduce a strict version of Muslim Sharia law across the 155-million person country. The population is roughly split between Muslims and Christians.
After Boko Haram's leader was killed in police custody in 2009, its members began carrying out a campaign of sporadic violence which has been fueled by the military's iron-fisted approach, experts say.
In August, group carried out its first suicide bombing and attack outside the north of the country when a car bomb claimed 24 lives at the United Nations building in the capital, Abuja.
Observers are also closely monitoring whether the group is forging links with other international terrorist organizations. People claiming to speak on behalf of the group say it draws inspiration from Afghanistan's Taliban. Some experts say the group has a network that extends across Chad and Mali.
Nigerian security forces have struggled to contain near-daily blasts in the group's home base states, Yobe and Borno. While the violence has rarely spilled beyond the north, officials and diplomats say the group's anti-government rhetoric has earned it substantial support from local residents living amid unemployment and poverty levels up to twice the national average.
Activist Shehu Sani, president of Civil Rights Congress of Nigeria, said attempts to broker a cease-fire have been derailed, but he stressed the importance of dialogue. "On the one hand, Boko Haram cannot turn Nigeria into an Islamic state through force. On the other, the Nigerian forces cannot crush the group through use of force," he told CNN.