June 7, 2011 / 3:08 PM / in 7 years

Explosions, gunfire hit northeast Nigerian town

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (Reuters) - At least three explosions hit Nigeria’s northeastern town of Maiduguri on Tuesday and gunfire rang out after suspected members of an Islamist sect attacked police stations.

A view of an illegal oil refinery is seen in Ogoniland outside Port Harcourt in Nigeria's Delta region March 24, 2011. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye

Blasts struck the fire service headquarters, Ramat Square parade ground and the central Dandal area of Borno state’s capital. Gunmen attacked three police stations and hospital sources said five bodies were brought in from one of them.

“I am still receiving reports from the various divisions but I can confirm that Gwange and Dandal (police stations) have been attacked,” police spokesman Lawal Abdullahi said.

Suspected members of radical group Boko Haram, which says it wants a wider application of sharia (Islamic law) in Africa’s most populous nation, has carried out almost daily attacks in and around Maiduguri in recent months.

Its targets have been soldiers, policemen, prison warders and politicians as well as religious and traditional rulers opposed to its ideology. An influential cleric critical of the sect was shot dead as he left a mosque in Biu, some 200 km (124 miles) south of Maiduguri, on Monday afternoon.

A spokesman for the group also claimed responsibility on local radio last week for coordinated bombs that killed at least 16 people hours after President Goodluck Jonathan was sworn in on May 29.

Bomb attacks in the north have rapidly replaced militant raids on oil facilities in the southern Niger Delta as the main security threat in the country of more than 150 million people.

The Nigerian government and security agencies have made no public comment on who might have been behind the May 29 attacks beyond saying that investigations are underway.

ILL-DEFINED GROUP

Boko Haram launched an uprising in Maiduguri 2009, attacking government buildings and leading to days of gun battles with the security forces in which as many as 800 people were killed.

It is unclear how many followers it has but poverty, unemployment and a lack of education in the far northeast have enabled its leaders to build a cult-like following which is as much violently anti-establishment as fervently religious.

The views of Boko Haram, whose name means “Western education is sinful”, are not espoused by most of the country’s Muslim population, the largest in sub-Saharan Africa.

Security experts say there is evidence that some members of the group have trained over the border in Niger where al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the north African arm of al Qaeda, is known to have a presence.

The sect had largely carried out attacks in Borno state until last December when it claimed responsibility for Christmas Eve blasts in the central city of Jos, and there are fears it is extending its reach.

“There is a fear of a ‘Hydra’ effect,” said one security contractor in Nigeria, referring to the many-headed beast of Greek mythology which grew more heads each time one was cut off.

“The group will keep growing back after being cut down and this could pose serious concerns in the future.”

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