At least 69 dead in north Nigeria sect attacks

Residents fearfully left their homes Saturday to bury their dead in northeast Nigeria following a series of coordinated attacks that killed at least 69 people and left a new police headquarters in ruins, government offices burned and symbols of state power destroyed.

A radical Muslim sect known locally as Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the attacks in Borno and Yobe states, with the worst damage done in and around the city of Damaturu. The group also promised to continue its bloody sectarian fight against Nigeria's weak central government, with residents nervously moving through empty streets, waiting for the next attack.

"There's that fear that something might possibly happen again," Nigerian Red Cross official Ibrahim Bulama said.

In Damaturu, the capital of Yobe state, a car bomb exploded Friday afternoon outside a three-story building used as a military office and barracks, killing many uniformed security agents, Bulama said.

Gunmen then went through the town, blowing up a bank and attacking at least three police stations and five churches, leaving them in rubble, officials said. Gunfire continued through the night and gunmen raided the village of Potiskum near the capital as well, witnesses said, leaving at least two people dead there.

On Saturday morning, people began hesitantly leaving their homes, seeing the destruction left behind which included military and police vehicles burned by the gunmen with the burned corpses of the drivers who died still in their seats.

Bulama spoke to The Associated Press by telephone Saturday morning from a common Muslim burial ground in the city as his family buried a relative and friend, a police officer who died after suffering a gunshot wound to the head in the fighting.

Officials anticipated a dusk-till-dawn curfew to fall over the town, though state officials repeatedly declined to comment on the violence. The violence destroyed federal offices, public buildings and an immigration office, said Aliyu Baffale Sambo, an official with Nigeria's National Emergency Management Agency.

Nigerian Red Cross statistics showed at least 65 people died in and around Damaturu. Four other people were killed by four bombs in Maiduguri, about 80 miles (130 kilometers) east, officials said. One of those blasts detonated around noon outside an Islamic college, another alongside a road, local police commissioner Simeon Midenda said.

A short time later, suicide bombers driving a black SUV detonated their explosives outside the base for the military unit charged with protecting the city from Boko Haram fighters, military spokesman Lt. Col. Hassan Ifijeh Mohammed said. That blast injured several soldiers.

A Boko Haram spokesman claimed responsibility for the attacks in an interview Saturday with The Daily Trust, the newspaper of record across Nigeria's Muslim north. A Boko Haram spokesman using the nom de guerre Abul-Qaqa promised that "more attacks are on the way."

"We will continue attacking federal government formations until security forces stop their excesses on our members and vulnerable civilians," the spokesman said.

His comments come as human rights activists say soldiers have beaten and killed civilians while trying to search for the sect in Maiduguri.

Two suicide bombers detonated explosives inside vehicles in Maiduguri on Saturday night, but caused no casualties, police said.

Boko Haram wants to implement strict Shariah law across Nigeria, an oil-rich nation of more than 160 million which has a predominantly Christian south and a Muslim north. Its name means "Western education is sacrilege" in the local Hausa language, but instead of schooling, it rejects Western ideals like Nigeria's U.S.-styled democracy that followers believe have destroyed the country with corrupt politicians.

Boko Haram's attacks occurred ahead of Eid al-Adha, or the feast of sacrifice, when Muslims around the world slaughter sheep and cattle in remembrance of Abraham's near-sacrifice of his son. Police elsewhere in the country had warned of violence ahead of the celebration in Nigeria, a country largely split between a Christian south and a Muslim north. On Wednesday, police in Maiduguri had said they broke up a plot to bomb the city over the holiday.

President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian who took office amid religious and political rioting that saw at least 800 die in April, canceled a trip to Bayelsa state for his younger brother's wedding Saturday, spokesman Reuben Abati said. He said the presidency did not consider those who launched the attacks "true Muslims," as the assault came during a holy period.

Abati also promised that "every step will be taken" to arrest those responsible — the same pledge made again and again as Jonathan has visited other sites bombed by Boko Haram.

"The security agencies will tell you that what happens on this scale is even a fraction of what could have happened considering the scope of the threat," Abati said. "The security agencies are busy at work trying to make sure the will of the majority of the Nigerian people is not subverted by a minority (group) with a suicidal streak."

However, the Nigerian government faces an increasingly dangerous threat from Boko Haram. The group apparently has split into three factions, the AP has learned. One faction remains moderate and welcomes an end to the violence, another wants a peace agreement with rewards similar to those offered to a different militant group in 2009.

The third faction, though, refuses to negotiate and remains the most radical. This faction is in contact with al-Qaida's North Africa branch and likely the Somalia-based terror group al-Shabab, a diplomat said on condition of anonymity according to embassy orders.

That sect likely is responsible for the increasingly violent and sophisticated attacks carried out in the sect's name. In August, Boko Haram claimed responsibility for a suicide car bombing at the United Nations headquarters in Nigeria's capital, which killed 24 people and left another 116 wounded.

An AP count shows the group has killed at least 329 people this year alone.

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