Muslim rebels expanded their attack against Nigerian security forces to three northern states yesterday, with at least 80 people killed in two days of clashes, security sources said.
Gun battles between police and members of a local Islamic group, which wants a wider adoption of Islamic law across Nigeria, were reported in Yobe, Kano and Borno states.
The attacks came a day after more than 50 people were killed in neighbouring Bauchi state. The violence was not connected to unrest in the oil-producing Niger Delta in the south.
The four northern states are among the 12 of Nigeria's 36 states that started a stricter enforcement of sharia in 2000 – a decision that has alienated sizeable Christian minorities and sparked bouts of sectarian violence that killed thousands.
The government estimates that 55 people have been killed in the fighting, but security sources and residents say the toll is much higher.
"Five policemen have been killed, 50 [militants] killed and one police station burnt," Nigeria's Police Inspector General Ogbonna Onovo told reporters in the capital, Abuja. "They are out there now in Maiduguri battling the police. We have sent reinforcements there."
A senior member of the rebel group Boko Haram, which opposes Western education and demands the adoption of sharia law in all of Nigeria, threatened further attacks. "We do not believe in Western education. It corrupts our ideas and beliefs. That is why we are standing up to defend our religion," Abdulmuni Ibrahim Mohammed said after his arrest in Kano state. "Even if I'm arrested, there are more out there to do the job."
Africa's most populous country is roughly equally split between Christians and Muslims. More than 200 ethnic groups generally live peacefully side by side in the West African country, although civil war left one million people dead between 1967 and 1970 and there have been bouts of religious unrest since then.
Members of Boko Haram set several churches, a police station and a prison ablaze in Maiduguri, the state capital of Borno, residents said. A Reuters reporter said that he saw at least 20 bodies laid out on the street as his family were leaving among hundreds of others. Gunshots and explosions could be heard throughout the city. "The [militants] are right now moving into town. Riot police and soldiers are everywhere, but the boys are not afraid of them," said Gana Marari, another resident of Maiduguri.
In northern Yobe and Kano states, clashes between rebels and security forces killed at least four people and injured 10. A Kano police spokesman said officers had arrested more than 100 gunmen.
Boko Haram, which means "education illegal", began its attacks in the north-eastern city of Bauchi.