ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) — The alleged mastermind of a radical Islamist sect's Christmas Day church bombing fled across Nigeria after escaping police custody and hid for about a month before finally being apprehended Friday, authorities said.
The arrest of Kabiru Sokoto by Nigeria's secret police and military comes after his escape led to national embarrassment amid the increasingly bloody attacks carried out by the sect known as Boko Haram. Though President Goodluck Jonathan fired the nation's top police official, the nation's weak central government still appears unable to stop the sect from attacking at will and disappearing into the shadows.
Officers from the State Security Service and soldiers raided a home early Friday morning in Mutum Biyu in Taraba state where they suspected Sokoto was hiding, said Marilyn Ogar, a spokeswoman for the secret police agency. They found Sokoto hiding behind a rack of drying laundry, Ogar said.
Authorities did not say how they found Sokoto, though secret police have in the past tracked suspects using the signals from their mobile phones. Ogar said Kabiru was hiding in a suspected accomplice's home, but it wasn't clear what his plans where. He initially fled to Nasarawa state, which borders Abuja, then to Taraba state, which borders Cameroon, she said.
Sokoto, wearing a green Puma T-shirt, appeared before journalists at a news conference at the secret police's Abuja headquarters. He only answered "yes" when asked if he was Kabiru Sokoto.
Police named Sokoto, an alleged member of the radical sect known as Boko Haram, as the prime suspect for the Dec. 25 bombing of St. Theresa Catholic Church in Madalla, a city just outside of Nigeria's capital Abuja. That attack killed at least 44 people, church officials say, as a car bomb detonated just as worshippers left an early morning Christmas Mass.
Boko Haram claimed responsibility for that attack and two others carried out the same day. The sect, whose name means "Western education is sacrilege" in the local Hausa language, is carrying out increasingly sophisticated and bloody attacks in its campaign to implement strict Shariah law and avenge Muslim killings in Nigeria, a multiethnic nation of more than 160 million people.
Officers arrested Sokoto in January at the official compound of the Borno state governor in Abuja. Borno state, in Nigeria's arid and dusty northeast, is Boko Haram's spiritual home.
However, a day after his arrest, a local police commissioner ordered Sokoto to be transferred to another police station in Abaji, a town outside of the capital. Authorities say the officers guarding Sokoto were attacked by suspected sect members and that he escaped, though the timing of the transfer and the official version of how he escaped has been widely questioned in the time since.
The local police commissioner has since been removed and is under investigation. Jonathan also fired the nation's top police official, though he was only a few months away from mandatory retirement.
It appears Nigeria's government has invested more manpower in hunting down Sokoto and keeping him held. The suspected bombing mastermind was flown back to Abuja on an air force flight, said a security official who requested anonymity as he wasn't authorized to speak to journalists.
Sokoto's arrest comes after authorities say they detained a Boko Haram spokesman who uses the nom de guerre Abul-Qaqa. While Abul-Qaqa and Sokoto's apprehensions are major arrests, Boko Haram's leader Imam Abubakar Shekau has issued video messages promising future attacks.
On Thursday, suspected Boko Haram gunmen shot and killed a Kano man who criticized the sect. He was shot after leaving a mosque for prayers, said witness Maikudi Hotoron Arewa. He said the gunmen told the man: "You are always critical of us. Your audacity cannot be achieved."
This year, Boko Haram is blamed for killing at least 271 people, according to an Associated Press count. At least 185 people died in the sect's coordinated assault in January on Kano, the largest city of Nigeria's Muslim north.
Meanwhile Friday, the state-run Nigerian Television Authority aired an audio clip it said came from Boko Haram. The clip denied it wanted any peace negotiations with the nation's government, contradicting an earlier video played by the television station this week showing two masked men who seemingly indicated the sect wanted talks.
"They should unmask themselves and let us know who they are," a man said in Friday's audio clip.
Associated Press writer Ibrahim Garba in Kano, Nigeria contributed to this report.
Jon Gambrell reported from Lagos and can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.