Explosions, Gunfire Strike Northeast Nigeria City

Published February 20, 2012 3:54PM (EST)

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (AP) — Gunfire and explosions echoed Monday through a city in northeast Nigeria as fighting between soldiers and members of a radical Islamist sect killed at least two civilians, authorities and witnesses said.

The explosions occurred in a popular market in Maiduguri, the spiritual home of the sect known as Boko Haram. A military spokesman said soldiers had killed eight members of the sect in the fighting. Traders at the market, who requested anonymity out of fear of reprisals, said they feared civilians had been killed in the fighting.

A group of young men attacked the market Monday, causing traders to flee as they heard an explosion, they said. Soldiers moved into the area shortly after, starting a gun battle with sect members, said Lt. Col. Hassan Ifeji Mohammed, a military spokesman.

At least eight suspected sect members died in the fighting, Mohammed said, while three civilians were shot and wounded in the gun battle. However, an official at the University of Maiduguri Teaching Hospital who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of contradicting the military said the facility received the corpses of two civilians Monday afternoon killed in the fighting.

Traders at the market said they believe the attack was a reprisal as a suspected gunman from the sect came into the market days earlier and was apprehended and later killed.

Boko Haram is waging an increasingly violent campaign against Nigeria's weak central government in its quest to enact strict Shariah law, free its detained members and avenge Muslim deaths in the nation. The sect has been blamed for violence that has killed at least 291 people this year alone, according to an Associated Press count.

The sect's attacks, including those specifically targeting Christians, have widened distrust between the two faiths in the multiethnic nation of more than 160 million people. Nigeria is largely split between a Christian south and a Muslim north, and most of Boko Haram's previous attacks have taken place in the north.

The gun battle Monday is just the latest violence to strike Nigeria. On Sunday, a bomb planted by an abandoned car exploded outside a church in the middle of a worship service near Nigeria's capital, wounding five people. On Wednesday night, armed gunmen from the sect stormed a federal prison, killing one guard and freeing 119 inmates.

By Salon Staff

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