Thursday, July 30, 2009



Published: July 30, 2009

DAKAR, Senegal — After days of fighting in the northern Nigerian city of Maiduguri, government forces claimed Thursday to have killed the deputy leader of a fundamentalist Islamic sect in a climactic gun battle that forced the leader of the insurgents to flee with several hundred followers, news reports said.

The reports came after Northern Nigeria was hit by a fourth day of violence on Wednesday, as soldiers trying to stamp out resistance from the sect, popularly known as Boko Haram, shelled its headquarters in Maiduguri. The authorities say the sect carried out two attacks on police stations and was perhaps plotting more. Already, hundreds of people have been killed in clashes that have spread across four states, according to reporters in the area and news agencies.

On Thursday, The Associated Press reported that government troops broke into the sect’s mosque in Maiduguri, touching off a gun battle that left scores dead. Maj. Gen. Saleh Maina, the commander of Nigerian troops in the city, was quoted as saying the sect’s deputy leader was among the dead, but that the leader of the movement escaped and fled with some 300 followers.

News reports said the army was conducting a house-to-house search Thursday on the outskirts of Maiduguri for the sect’s leader, Mohammed Yusuf. On Wednesday, soldiers shot their way into the mosque in Maiduguri and then raked those holed up inside with gunfire, The A.P. quoted one of its reporters as saying.

The reporter later counted about 50 bodies inside the building and another 50 in the courtyard outside. The militants were armed with homemade hunting rifles, bows and arrows and scimitars, The A.P. said.

One body among five corpses inside a large house was that of Bukar Shekau, the sect’s vice chairman, General Maina was quoted saying. “The mission has been accomplished,” he said.

The Borno state governor, Ali Modu Sheriff, was quoted by Reuters as saying: “Security personnel have succeeded in dislodging the militants and I urge everyone to go about their normal duties.” He said that anyone caught harboring fugitive sect members would “be dealt with according to the law.”

But residents said they were still too afraid to venture out, Reuters reported, after a police station was torched late on Wednesday and bursts of shooting continued throughout the night.

The Nigerian military took command of the operation against the insurgents from the police in a move that “illustrates the resolve of the Nigerian government to bring the situation under control,” said Emmanuel Ojukwu, a spokesman for the Nigerian police.

Late Wednesday Isa Umar Gusau, a reporter for The Daily Trust, a Nigerian newspaper, said the army had “blown up the enclave of the sect leaders.”

“The place has been bombed,” he said, describing a complex, now in flames, consisting of a clinic, a mosque and residences where the group’s leader lived.

Mr. Gusau and another reporter, Idris Abdullahi, said they had seen dozens of bodies. “The military are going in in force,” said Mr. Abdullahi, a reporter for the News Agency of Nigeria. “Hundreds have been killed.”

Officials described a city of deserted streets and businesses shut tight. “Everybody is looking for safety,” said Yushau Shuaib, a spokesman for the Nigerian National Emergency Management Agency. “They don’t want to be caught in the fire between the military and the militants.”

With phone lines largely down, the situation seemed increasingly desperate on Wednesday. “The town is in a state of siege,” said Jibrin Ibrahim, who directs the Center for Democracy and Development in Abuja, the Nigerian capital. “People don’t have food at home.”

Some reports suggested that as many as 43 people had been killed in Yobe State on Wednesday, though Mr. Ojukwu refused to say how many had died.

The government also gave contradictory accounts of what touched off the conflict with the militants, who are sometimes referred to as the Taliban. Nigerian security officials have repeatedly argued that the militants attacked first, but on Wednesday, President Umaru Yar’Adua rejected that argument.

“It was not the Taliban group that attacked the security agents first, no,” he said, according to The A.P.News accounts and analysts suggested that clashes between security forces and sect members over the last six weeks preceded the latest violence, reinforcing Mr. Yar’Adua’s suggestion that the group had been in the sights of officials for some time.

On June 11, police officers in Maiduguri fired on a sect funeral procession, shooting 17. Mr. Yusuf, denouncing the shootings, vowed to take revenge, according to Nnamdi Obasi, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit group dedicated to conflict resolution.

“It looked like the stage was set for trouble,” Mr. Obasi said.

Then, last Friday, the police raided a sect hide-out south of Maiduguri and recovered “a lot of combat materials,” Mr. Obasi said, including bomb-making equipment.

Early Sunday, according to the police, the group struck back, attacking a police headquarters in Bauchi. The violence spread quickly, with security forces moving in to crush the militants.

The sect rejects Western education, supports the imposition of strict Islamic law and believes in segregation of the sexes. Islamic law has been applied in the northern Nigerian states for the last decade, but not in its strictest form.

Underlying the conflict is the deep poverty of millions in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation. “You have a ready army that can be enlisted in violent enterprises,” Mr. Obasi said. “These are people who feel the Western models of education and government have failed them.”

Adam Nossiter reported from Dakar, Senegal, and Alan Cowell from Paris.