Islamist militants seeking to impose a Taliban-style regime in northern Nigeria launched attacks Monday on police in three towns, expanding a two-day campaign of violence that has killed at least 55 people, police and witnesses said.
Trouble began Sunday when militants attacked a police station in
the northern city of Bauchi, leaving dozens dead in gunbattles with
police. On Monday, militants launched a wave of attacks in three
more states, targeting the towns of Maiduguri, Damaturu, and Wudil
in the predominantly Muslim North, police and residents said.
National police chief Ogbonnaya Onovo put the overall toll at 55
dead at least - 50 militants and five police officers.
A journalist for the local Compass newspaper in Maiduguri,
Olugbenga Akinbule, said he saw the bodies of about 100 Islamist
militants shot in gunbattles with police in the town, where some of
the worst violence occurred. Authorities did not confirm that toll.
Nigeria has been sporadically wracked by sectarian clashes since
12 of the country's 36 states began adopting Islamic law, or
Shariah, in the north in 1999.
The radical sect known as Al-Sunna wal Jamma, or "Followers of
Mohammed's Teachings" in Arabic, comprises mainly young Nigerians
who want to create a Taliban-style state based on a strict
interpretation of Shariah Law and the Quran. The group first came
to prominence with a wave of similar assaults on New Year's Eve
2003. More attacks followed in late 2004, but little has been heard
about the sect since.
Residents in the North also refer to the Islamists as "Boko
Haram," which means "Western education is sin" in the local
Hausa dialect. Onovo referred to the militants as Taliban, though
the group has no known links to Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.
A local newspaper, Daily Trust, quoted the leader of the sect,
Ustaz Mohammed Yusuf, as saying his followers are ready to die to
ensure the institution of a strict Islamic society.
"Democracy and (the) current system of education must be
changed, otherwise this war that is yet to start would continue for
long," he said.
Onovo vowed that police would arrest the group's leaders.
"This a fanatical organization that is anti-government,
anti-people. We don't know what their aims are yet; we are out to
identify and arrest their leaders and also destroy their enclaves,
wherever they are," Onovo said.
In Damaturu, capital of Yobe state, militants bombed a police
station, said national police spokesman Emmanuel Ojukwu.
In Kano state's Wudil district, militants attacked another
police station, according to local police spokesman Baba Muhammad.
He said three militants were killed and two police officers were
wounded in a shootout, and 34 militants were arrested.
In Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, militants battled
police for hours. Onovo said he had sent "reinforcements to our
men in Maiduguri to be able to cope with the situation." Akinbule
said militants attacked a police headquarters, burned 10 houses
inside the police compound, and freed prisoners from a state
Nnamdi K. Obasi, a Nigerian analyst with the International
Crisis Group, said trouble has been brewing for a while.
He said police in Maiduguri stopped some motorcycle-riding
members of a funeral procession carrying the body of a sect member
two months ago because they were not wearing helmets. A fracas
ensued and police shot and killed 14 members of the group,
prompting Yusuf to vow retaliation, Obasi said.
Police have been carrying out operations against the group. Last
week in Biu, about 200 kilometers (125 miles) south of Maiduguri,
they raided a militant compound and found homemade bombshells,
explosive material, knives, machetes and guns, and arrested nine
On Saturday, police in Maiduguri raided another house being used
by the militants after a homemade bomb exploded there accidentally,
killing one militant and injuring another, according to Onovo, who
said police "recovered many bags of explosives and different types
of dangerous weapons" from the house.
Obasi said the dead militant was a senior leader of the sect who
group members believe state security forces assassinated. "Word
went around their network that the police were carrying out
pre-emptive searches, and this has led to the attacks since
Sunday," Obasi said by telephone from Kearney, Nebraska.
More than 10,000 Nigerians have died in sectarian violence since
civilian leaders took over from a former military junta in 1999,
though in recent years such violence has eased.
Nigeria's 140 million people are nearly evenly divided between
Christians, who predominate in the south, and primarily
northern-based Muslims. Shariah was implemented in a dozen northern
states after the country returned to civilian rule in 1999
following years of oppressive military regimes.
Obasi said, however, that Shariah was never strictly imposed,
and politicians had used the promise to do so to consolidate their
hold on power and attract funding from the Middle East.
The Islamist sect has been able to expand quietly since 2004,
fueled by deepening poverty and lack of development.
"You find Islamic leaders coming forward to say, 'We've never
gained anything from Western models of governance or education, and
unless we go back to the society prescribed by the Quran, nothing
will get better,"' Obasi said.
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