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Nigeria says it has put down Islamic sect
( 2004-01-04 10:34) (Agencies)

Nigeria declared Saturday it had put down an armed uprising by an Islamic movement seeking to create a Muslim state in Africa's most populous nation, after running battles that killed at least eight people.

Two police officers and at least six of the militants died in five days of clashes in three towns in predominantly Islamic Yobe state, including the capital, Damaturu, said Ibrahim Jirigi, a state government spokesman. Details of the fighting in the remote northeastern region had been difficult to obtain.

The uprising, by a largely university-based Nigerian student group preaching Islamic revolution, stood as one of the most concerted offensives in three years of Christian-Muslim violence since Yobe and 11 other northern states began instituting Islamic law, or Shariah.

The battles sent scores of families fleeing the targeted communities of Geidam and Kanamma, and disrupted markets and farming, Aminu Musa, a trader, told The Associated Press.

"We had always lived in peace there as Muslims until this group came with their violence," Musa said.

Musa, who spoke by telephone from the state capital, escaped Kanamma earlier in the week as security forces gathered strength against the militant group.

Jirigi identified the group as Al Sunna Wal Jamma, Arabic for "followers of Mohammed's teachings." Nigerian media gave slightly varying versions of the name.

The group for the past two years has campaigned for an Islamic state and publicly criticized officials it saw as lax in implementing Islamic law. The attacks mark the first time the movement has been known to take up arms.

Violence started Tuesday, when roughly 200 militants attacked two police stations in Geidam and Kanamma, killing a policeman, Jirigi said.

The attackers targeted police stations and took their weapons, chiefly AK-47 assault rifles, which they then used against security forces, Yobe state Police Chief Joseph Apapa told reporters Friday.

Some members retreated to a primary school in Kanamma, where they hoisted a flag bearing the word "Afghanistan."

Fighting surged again on New Year's Eve, when Nigeria's government sent riot police reinforcements from outside Yobe state.

As some civilians fled, one band of Al Sunna Wal Jamma fighters retreated to Damaturu, where they looted and burned a police station and a local government office.

Militants there killed a police inspector "and engaged the police in a two-hour gunbattle," Jirigi said.

That group fled to neighboring Borno state, taking one police officer with them. Army troops ambushed that faction and freed the captive officer, Jirigi said.

Another band of militants fled to the border with Niger. Niger security forces stopped the fighters there, killing three of the militants.

Nigeria police spokesman Chris Olakpe said Saturday that police and soldiers had brought the remote northeast region under control.

Olakpe declined to give further details. Military authorities could not be reached for comment.

In Damaturu, police and government officials said the primary school was back in the hands of security forces.

"The only people left there now are about 100 women and children, family members of the militants being taken care by the army," Jirigi said.

Police and the army searched on Saturday for militants who escaped in the fighting. "We want to make sure they're completely routed," said a police official, who refused to give his name.

Nigeria, a nation of more than 120 million, is made up a majority-Muslim north and a heavily Christian south.

Religious violence, at times aggravated or exploited in ethnic, regional or political power struggles, has killed thousands since the dozen northern states started implementing Islamic law.

Sectarian violence is not new to Nigeria. In the 1980s, an outlawed Islamic group known as the Maitatsine was blamed in fighting that killed thousands in the north.

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