KANO, Nigeria (Reuters) - Nigerian security forces said on Sunday they were hunting for Islamist militants behind a coordinated attack in the north that killed at least 65 people, as shocked residents demanded the government do more to protect them.
The Boko Haram Islamist sect claimed responsibility for multiple gun and bomb attacks in the city of Damaturu on Friday evening that left bodies littering the streets and police stations, churches and mosques reduced to smouldering rubble.
“We are ready for them, we are going to comb every place in the state to until we find and deal with them. Our men are ready,” the police commissioner for Yobe state, of which Damaturu is the capital, told Reuters.
He gave the official death toll as 53, less than the tally of 65 sent to Reuters by an emergency relief agency that counted bodies in the morgues — 63 from the Damaturu attack and another two from a strike on a neighbouring village.
Bewildered residents questioned how the gunmen were able to take over the city and wreak havoc with apparent ease.
“I am a Muslim but what is happening in Nigeria now is unacceptable. President Jonathan and his security chiefs should take control of the situation. We are tired of these terrorist acts,” said Abdulgafar Bello, 48, a market trader.
In a statement, the U.N. Security Council said it “condemns in the strongest terms the terrorist attacks that occurred in Damaturu and Potiskum,” and it called for global “measures to combat terrorism.”
Boko Haram is growing in sophistication, and the increasing audacity and deadliness of its attacks, two of which struck the capital Abuja this year, have evolved into a big security headache for President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration.
Boko Haram deems all who do not follow its strict ideology as infidels, whether they are Christian or Muslim. It demands the adoption of sharia, Islamic law, in all of Africa’s most populous country, which is split roughly evenly between Christians and Muslims.
Friday’s violence, which included a spate of bomb attacks in the northeastern city of Maiduguri, was some of the worst on record by the group, whose name means “Western education is forbidden” in the northern, Hausa language.
The president rarely comments on frequent attacks in the north. But on Saturday, he said in a statement he had “directed security agencies to ensure the arrest of perpetrators of these heinous acts and assures Nigerians that all necessary will be done to ensure safety of lives and properties”.
Many Nigerians were unimpressed.
“How can the president use the same cliche to address another mass murder of Nigerians he swore an oath to protect? Why not declare war on Boko Haram? What is wrong with his executive powers? What is wrong with Nigeria?” wrote a blogger called Ken on the website of the Nigerian daily This Day.
But efforts to make war on Boko Haram in the past have done little to quell the insurgency and heavy-handed police tactics in the remote northeast have radicalised youths against the state — creating a fertile breeding ground for more militancy.
The conflict has heightened rifts between Nigeria’s increasingly prosperous, oil-rich south and its economically deprived, semi-arid north. Boko Haram appears to be growing in sophistication, and security analysts believe it has made links with al Qaeda’s north African affiliate.
Apart from a greater presence of security on the streets of Damaturu, residents said, life was slowly returning to normal as Muslims there slaughtered sheep to celebrate the Eid al Adha, the festival of sacrifice.
Nigeria, with a population of 150 million, is mostly peaceful but growing militancy in the north and spasms of violence in the ethnically and religiously mixed “Middle Belt” are an increasing worry.