Nigeria security forces kill 2 after sect attack

January 24, 2012 - 1:55 PM
APTOPIX Nigeria Violence

People look at a bullet casing sitting in a pool of blood and bullet holes in a house at the center of a gun battle early Tuesday morning in the city of Kano, Nigeria, on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012. Witnesses at the house said security forces surrounded it and forced their way inside shooting, killing a man and a pregnant woman while searching for members of a radical Islamist sect known as Boko Haram. Police declined to immediately comment about the shooting.(AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

KANO, Nigeria (AP) — A young man in traditional robes sobbed Tuesday as he stood in a pool of blood, surrounded by bullet-scarred walls left behind after a security raid in this northern Nigeria city recently assaulted by a radical Islamist sect.

Residents of this dusty neighborhood in the city of Kano pressed shoulder-to-shoulder inside the home, saying soldiers and others killed the man who lived here and his pregnant wife for no reason.

The local police commissioner acknowledged the attack and said it was part of the government's effort to root out the sect known as Boko Haram, responsible for killing at least 185 people in a Friday attack on the country's second-largest city.

Tuesday's killings highlight the dangers posed by possible reprisal killings and arbitrary arrests carried out by Nigerian security services who are trying to stop Boko Haram's increasingly sophisticated attacks. And while the sect remains amorphous and secretive, such assaults may only alienate the same population the government wants to save.

"He didn't belong to any religious group. Is it because of his beard?" asked relative Musa Ibrahim Fatega. "That means you cannot dress the way you are. Is it good? Is this how government is going to treat us?"

Friday's attack in Kano saw Boko Haram members spread through the city, attacking police stations, immigration offices and the local headquarters of the secret police. The attacks came after authorities refused to release suspected sect members earlier arrested, Kano state police commissioner Ibrahim Idris said.

Much of the bloodshed during Friday's attack occurred when Boko Haram gunmen threw improvised bombs made of aluminum cans and a white powder explosive, likely fertilizer. Foreign journalists saw the cans Tuesday, which had been stuffed with cotton at the top, each holding a simple detonator. Idris said gunmen threw the explosives, then fired randomly on those they saw fleeing the blast.

Police say they found 10 car bombs and about 300 of those unexploded cans after the attack — potentially signaling Boko Haram planned further violence in the city of more than 9 million people.

Some Boko Haram gunmen also wore uniforms resembling those of the Mobile Police, the paramilitary arm of the nation's federal police, to take control of the streets during Friday's attack, Idris said. Others had camouflage uniforms like those worn by soldiers in the country, the commissioner said.

"Some of our police officers who saw them on the street thought they were their colleagues," Idris said. "They just shot them in cold blood."

The coordinated attack was Boko Haram's deadliest since they began a campaign of terror last year. Boko Haram has now killed at least 262 people in 2012, more than half of the at least 510 people the sect killed in all of 2011, according to an Associated Press count. Medical workers and emergency officials say they expect the toll may be even higher.

Boko Haram wants to implement strict Shariah law and avenge the deaths of Muslims in communal violence across Nigeria, a multiethnic nation of more than 160 million people split largely into a Christian south and Muslim north.

While the sect has begun targeting Christians in the north, the majority of those killed Friday appeared to be Muslim, officials said.

Nigeria's weak central government has been unable to stop Boko Haram's increasingly bloody attacks. Early Tuesday morning, security forces surrounded the Kano home and started a gun battle that lasted for hours. It left bullet holes peppering walls and the home's interior metal doors. Inside a living room, blood pooled around beige sofas, with a single rifle cartridge left behind.

A sedan inside the compound, also riddled with bullet holes, bore federal government license plates. The dead man previously worked for the country's education ministry, said Fatega, his relative.

Security forces took the two bodies away, leaving family members to try to figure out how to reclaim them for burial before sundown according to Islamic tradition. The scene around the house was tense as onlookers pressed against the front gate. A military attack helicopter circled overhead.

Idris said a "sister agency" carried out the attack on the house. Typically, police use that term when referring to the State Security Service, the county's secret police. Marilyn Ogar, a secret police spokeswoman, said she had no information about the attack.

Meanwhile, officers have withdrawn from Kano's streets, massing at the state headquarters where one Boko Haram suicide bomber detonated a car full of explosives Friday. Those there remain angry and tense, with one claiming he hadn't eaten for days. Coupled with a military which has used its firepower against civilians in the past, that raises the possibility of innocent people being caught up in security operations or killed, analysts warn.

Amnesty International issued a statement Tuesday warning the Nigerian government "not pursue security at the expense of human rights."

"The population in northern Nigeria are caught between being targeted by Boko Haram and Nigeria's counterterrorism measures that fail to prevent, investigate, prosecute or punish these acts," Amnesty said. Such government operations "often result in new human rights violations perpetrated by the security forces with impunity."

However, the situation remains much more simple for police.

"People attacking police stations, they are terrorists," Idris said. "That's it."

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Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.