Nigeria’s League for Human Rights says overzealous security forces are killing innocent civilians as the military tries to crush an Islamist militant sect.
League director Shamaki Gad Peter tells The Associated Press that rights workers saw the bodies of up to 20 people after troops began an offensive on the sect’s headquarters in Maiduguri on Wednesday.
He says they were unarmed and some were shot from behind and assumed to be trying to escape the mayhem. The rights worker says many other innocent people have been arrested.
The government has blamed the Boko Haram sect for days of violence in Muslim-dominated northern Nigeria and was hunting down sect members on Thursday.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.
MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (AP) — Nigerian security forces shelled then stormed the mosque and compound of an Islamist sect blamed for days of violence across northern Nigeria, killing more than 100 militants in a raging gunbattle.
The bodies of barefoot young men littered the streets of Maiduguri on Thursday morning as the army conducted a house-to-house manhunt on the outskirts of the city for sect members. Police said most of the dead were Islamist fighters.
Sect leader Mohammed Yusuf escaped along with about 300 followers but his deputy was killed in Wednesday night’s bombardment, according to Army commander Maj. Gen. Saleh Maina.
An AP reporter watched soldiers, under fire, shoot their way into the mosque in Maiduguri on Wednesday and then rake those holed up inside with gunfire. The reporter later counted about 50 bodies inside the building and another 50 in the courtyard outside.
The militants, armed with homemade hunting rifles, bows and arrows and scimitars, were no match for the government forces.
Another five corpses were just inside a large house near the mosque. Maina pointed to the body of a plump, bearded man and said it the Boko Haram sect’s vice chairman, Bukar Shekau.
“The mission has been accomplished,” said Maina, the army commander.
Militants seeking to impose Islamic Shariah law throughout this multi-religious country attacked police stations, churches, prisons and government buildings in a wave of violence that began Sunday in Borno state and quickly spread to three other states in mainly Muslim northern Nigeria.
It is not known how many scores of people have been killed, wounded and arrested. Relief official Apollus Jediel said Wednesday that at least 4,000 people have been displaced by the fighting.
The epicenter of the violence has been the Boko Haram sect’s headquarters in Maiduguri, capital of Borno state, which was bombarded Wednesday. Maina said his troops would fire mortar shells later Thursday to destroy what is left of the sprawling compound, which stretches over 2.5 miles (4 kilometers).
The radical sect is known by several different names, including Al-Sunna wal Jamma, or “Followers of Mohammed’s Teachings” and “Boko Haram,” which means “Western education is sin.” Some Nigerian officials have referred to the militants as Taliban, although the group has no known affiliation with Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.
Earlier this week, President Umaru Yar’Adua said the sect were preparing to unleash “the holy war.” Security agents have been watching the sect for months and were ordered to attack when the movement began gathering fighters from nearby states at its Maiduguri headquarters, he said.
In recent months, police have been raiding militant hideouts and finding explosives and arms. The house at the compound in Maiduguri included a laboratory the military said was used to make chemical and fire bombs.
Borno Gov. Ali Modu Sheriff told journalists Yusuf had been seen Wednesday night in a village about 28 miles (45 kilometers) northeast of Maiduguri.
Men in Bauchi state and in Maiduguri, meanwhile, started trimming and even shaving off their beards Thursday, fearful the facial hair could make them targets for security forces.
In other violence, Nigeria’s Vanguard newspaper reported that militants attacked security forces in Yobe state on Wednesday, and quoted police as saying that 43 sect members were killed in a shootout near the city of Potiskum.
Police in Bauchi state have reported 42 people killed, including two soldiers and a police officer, 67 hospitalized with serious injuries and 157 men arrested.
In the city of Kano, the local government on Wednesday bulldozed a mosque and the house of a sect leader, who officials said had fled with his family. Officials said the mosque was an illegal structure.
The bulldozing came two days after sect militants attacked a Kano police station. Kano police spokesman Baba Mohammed said more than 50 militants have been arrested, with five shot and killed during the arrests.
Nigeria‘s 140 million people are roughly divided between Christians in the south and northern-based Muslims. Shariah was implemented in 12 northern states after Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999 following years of oppressive military regimes. More than 10,000 Nigerians have died in sectarian violence since then.
Yet at the heart of the violence is dire poverty and maneuvering by political and religious leaders who manipulate ill-educated youths to further their aims.
Yar’Adua, the president, has been criticized for leaving the country Tuesday on a state visit to Brazil. He insisted before he left that the situation was under control. The military itself keep referring to “mopping up” exercises even as a full-scale battle was taking place.
Boko Haram is reported to include many members of the elite, including university lecturers and others who have abandoned their posts and sold their homes to join. Vanguard and the Nigerian Guardian newspaperreported that police in northwest Sokoto state on Tuesday arrested former university lecturer Kadiru Atiku, believed to the sect’s local leader.
Analysts say the latest violence reflects decades-old grievances of Nigerians whose governments are so corrupt and ineffective they do not deliver even basic services like running water and electricity.
Nnamdi K. Obasi, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, said the militants don’t have the weapons or the numbers to have much impact beyond northern Nigeria but predicts violence will return unless deeper issues are addressed.
“You’re talking about improving governance as a whole,” Obasi said. “Reducing corruption. Year after year, you don’t see progress on these issues, and this is one of the biggest problems of Nigeria.”