By Katharine Houreld
Monday, August 3, 2009
MAIDUGURI, Nigeria, Aug. 2 -- Nigerian authorities ignored dozens of warnings about a violent Islamist sect until it attacked police stations and government buildings last week in a bloodbath that killed more than 700 people, Muslim clerics and an army official said.
More than 50 Muslim leaders repeatedly called Nigeria's police, local authorities and state security to urge them to take action against Boko Haram sect militants but their pleas were ignored, Imam Ibrahim Ahmed Abdullahi said.
He spoke Saturday to the Associated Press along with several other Muslim scholars in the battle-ravaged city of Maiduguri.
"A lot of imams tried to draw the attention of the government," Abdullahi said, drawing nods from other scholars sitting with him in a Maiduguri slum. "We used to call the government and security agents to say that these people must be stopped from what they are doing because it must bring a lot of trouble."
Government officials did not respond Sunday to repeated requests for comment.
On July 26, militants from the sect attacked a police station in Bauchi state, triggering a wave of militant violence that spread to three other northern states. Nigerian authorities retaliated five days later by storming the group's sprawling Maiduguri headquarters, killing at least 100 people in the attack, half of them inside the sect's mosque.
About 700 people were killed in days of violence last week in Maiduguri alone, according to Col. Ben Ahanotu, the military official in charge of a local anti-crime operation. A relief official said thousands fled the city.
The death toll in other northern areas from the violence was not known and authorities did not say how many suspected militants have been arrested. Rights groups have claimed that innocent civilians were being slain during the government hunt for sect members.
The imams were not the only ones to raise the alarm. Ahanotu said he recommended several times that action be taken against the group but received no orders to do so.
"I complained a lot of times," he said. "I was just waiting for orders."
The allegations of authorities dismissing the warnings raise serious questions about the West African nation's capacity to monitor and defend itself against terrorist groups.
International concern is growing over the ability of al-Qaeda affiliates to cross the porous desert borders of north African countries such as Niger, which shares a border with Nigeria.