MAIDUGURI, Nigeria – Security forces hunted door-to-door for Islamic militants in northern Nigeria on Thursday after killing more than 100 of them by storming the sect’s compound. A top rights group said innocent people were getting executed in the process.
The government, which blames the Boko Haram sect for instigating days of violence in the mostly Muslim region, shelled and stormed the group’s mosque and headquarters Wednesday night, setting off a raging firefight with retreating militants.
Sect leader Mohammed Yusuf escaped along with about 300 followers but his deputy was killed, according to Army commander Maj. Gen. Saleh Maina.
The bodies of barefoot young men littered the streets of Maiduguri on Thursday morning as the army pursued the manhunt on the outskirts of the city. Police said most of the dead were Islamist fighters.
A local rights group charged Thursday that security forces have been killing innocent civilians over the last four days as they fought to crush the sect. Witnesses said they watched troops executing captured people alleged to be militants.
An AP reporter saw soldiers, under fire, shoot their way into the sect’s 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.
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.
The militants, armed with homemade hunting rifles and firebombs, bows and arrows, machetes and scimitars, were no match for the government forces.
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.
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 forced from their homes.
The epicenter of the violence has been the Boko Haram sect’s headquarters in Maiduguri, capital of Borno state. 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 kilometres).
Maiduguri resident Linda Dukwa said she and her family have been hiding in terror for days, too scared to venture out even for food, after police executed two men in front of her Monday.
“They were dressed in white robes,” she said, indicating they were sect members. “They were held by policemen. Then they shot their feet. After they fell on the ground, they (police) shot their heads.”
“It was terrifying,” she said.
League for Human Rights director Shamaki Gad Peter said rights workers saw the bodies of up to 20 people after Wednesday’s government offensive began. The bodies were unarmed, he said, and some appeared to have been shot from behind and assumed to be trying to escape the mayhem.
Police had warned people to evacuate the area.
Several soldiers and police officers have been killed by militants. Nigeria’s security forces are notoriously trigger-happy but have a difficult job trying to target sect members who are reportedly using innocents as human shields in the congested urban environment.
The radical sect responsible for the mayhem 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, and analyst Nnamdi K. Obasi of the International Crisis Group said a few have actually fought with that radical movement in Afghanistan.
Obasi said sect leaders have travelled to train and meet with radically minded groups in Sudan, Iraq and particularly Iran, which they consider “a destination of pilgrimage.”
Associated Press reporters Muhammad Wahab in Bauchi state and Michelle Faul and Anita Powell in Johannesburg contributed to this report.