, MAIDUGURI, Jul 29 – Troops struggled to crush an Islamist sect in northern Nigeria Wednesday where fighting raged for a fourth day running, leaving around 300 people dead and forcing thousands from homes.
Police sources said fighting was concentrated in Maiduguri city, the base of the self-styled Nigerian Taliban following orders from President Umaru Yar’Adua for the armed forces to crush the movement "once and for all" although clashes were reported in neighbouring states.
"Fighting is still going on in five flashpoints in the city but it is more intense in Bayan Quarters where the leader of this group has taken position," a police source told AFP in Maiduguri.
The home of the sect’s leader Mohammed Yusuf was shelled by forces on Tuesday evening, along with a mosque where many of his followers had gathered, but Yusuf appeared to have escaped.
"The house and the mosque have been pulverised and reduced to rubble," the officer said.
He said the offensive to rout out the militants was likely to take longer than previously thought.
"To be honest with you I don’t think the campaign will be finished within the next day or two," he added.
"Part of the obstacle the troops are facing is that there are still civilians in some of these neighbourhoods. Therefore troops need to be cautious," he said.
Residents said it appeared that troops were now closing in on the last of the militants while human rights activists counted at least 10 new bodies.
Maiduguri, capital of Borno state, has seen the worst of the unrest in northern Nigeria since clashes first erupted on Sunday in Bauchi state when militants launched an attack on a police station.
But fresh fighting was also reported Wednesday in Yobe state where troops are hunting down scores of militants believed to have fled into forests on the outskirts of Potiskum town.
A police source said at least 30 had been killed in the Wednesday’s gun battles there, adding 10 armoured tanks were guarding a nearby central prison which authorities suspect is the militants’ target.
Although four states have been caught up in the violence, most of the casualties appear to have been in Maiduguri where a police source said at least 206 people died on Monday alone. Police had reported 55 deaths elsewhere.
The unrest is the deadliest in Nigeria since November last year when human rights groups say up to 700 were killed in the central city of Jos in direct clashes between Muslims and Christians.
Polices sources said at least 3,000 residents have been displaced, with many seeking refuge at a military barracks. Scores of others were at a police headquarters where they huddled among corpses of slain militants.
"At the moment there are over 3,000 people who have fled their homes in Bayan Quarters, taking refuge in Maimalari army barracks. They are largely Christians and non-indigenes like Igbos," the police source said.
Food is also running out as shops and businesses have been shut since Monday.
"The food situation is terrible. All markets and shops are closed. We are eating garri (cassava flour porridge) and sugar," said a resident, Mohammed Awwan Mujahid.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed alarm over the violence and condemned "the unnecessary loss of human life and the destruction of property."
Yar’Adua said late Tuesday the group would be routed and punished.
"They will be dealt with squarely and forthwith," he added.
The Nigerian extremists emerged in 2002 in Maiduguri before setting up a camp on the border with Niger, from where it attacked launched a series of attacks against the police.
The leadership has previously said it intends to lead an armed insurrection and rid society of "immorality" and "infidelity".
Muslim clerics in Nigeria have slammed the violence as "criminal".
"It’s unfortunate and an embarrassment to the Muslims," Abdulkarim Mohazu, secretary general of Nigeria’s Jama’atul Nasril Islam, an umbrella body of Muslims in the country, told AFP.
Northern Nigeria is mainly Muslim, although large Christian minorities have settled in the main towns, raising tensions between the two groups.