Nigeria’s military has claimed it raided the compound of a fundamentalist Islamic sect and killed one of its top leaders, as the battle intensified between government troops and Islamist forces in the country’s north Thursday.
At least 400 rebels, civilians and troops have died since the fighting began Sunday, triggered by the arrest of some members of the sect, known as Boko Haram. The group retaliated by attacking police, military and government institutions in Bauchi state. The violence quickly spread to three other states, prompting a major response by troops. The group wants to impose a strict form of Islamic law, or sharia, in Muslim-dominated northern Nigeria. The sect also opposes Western education. On Wednesday, troops seized control of a Boko Haram stronghold in the city of Maiduguri in Borno state, and killed the deputy leader of the group, said Col. Ben Ahonotu. Up to 1,000 militants had been holed up at their base of operations in Maiduguri. National police spokesman Emmanuel Ojukwu said Wednesday that police were able to free 187 women and children whom they claim were being held in the compound of the Islamic militants’ leader, Mohammed Yusuf. Under the sect’s strict adherence to sharia law, the group released was shielded from public view, Ojukwu said.
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Shehu Sani, president of the Civil Rights Congress, a human rights organization based in northern Nigeria, said people were seeking refuge in police and military barracks and in hospitals. The militants disagree with the government’s teaching of Islam in the region, maintaining that the government allows itself to be influenced by Western values. They have been targeting high-profile government institutions, police and Islamic clergy, Ojukwu said. There is a history of religious violence in central Nigeria, where majority-Muslim North Africa meets largely Christian sub-Saharan Africa. Human Rights Watch estimates that more than 1,000 people were killed there in riots in 2001. Last week the human rights organization alleged that police and soldiers killed at least 133 people during two days of riots last year between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria. Most of the victims were young Muslim men, often unarmed, the group said in testimony before a state commission.