, KANO, Jul 27 – Radical Islamists torched a police headquarters, a church and a customs office in northern Nigeria, residents said Monday, as police put the death toll in weekend religious clashes at 65.
"Five policemen have been killed, one police station burnt and 60 Talibans killed," police Inspector-General Ogbonna Onovo told reporters, referring to a Nigerian Islamist sect styled on Afghanistan’s Taliban.
He said the death toll related to clashes in the neighbouring states of Bauchi and Yobe, adding that new fighting was raging in nearby Borno state.
"They (militants) are out there in Maiduguri (Borno) now, battling with the police," Nigeria’s police chief told a news conference in the capital Abuja.
Residents of Gamboru-Ngala in Borno state said heavily armed members of the sect stormed the town and went on the rampage, burning a police headquarters, a church and a customs post in the early hours of Monday.
One resident, Shafiu Mohammed, said sect members had overpowered police and customs officers in the town, on the border with Cameroon.
"The operation took them two hours. They left around 2:00 am (0100 GMT) without facing any resistance," Mohammed told AFP by telephone.
Police gave no details of casualties in the attack, but Mohammed said the armed men burned a customs officer to death and slit the throat of an engineer working at the customs complex.
The fighting broke out Sunday in Bauchi state when police hit back at militants after they attacked a police station at dawn.
A gunbattle ensued, with the death toll there put at 39.
There were further clashes in Yobe state, Onovo told the news conference.
The Nigerian Taliban emerged in 2004 when it set up a base — dubbed Afghanistan — in Kanamma village in Yobe, on the border with Niger, from where it attacked police outposts and killed police officers.
Its membership is mainly drawn from university dropouts.
The north of Nigeria is majority Muslim, although large Christian minorities have settled in the main towns, raising tensions between the two groups.
Since 1999 and the return of a civilian regime to Nigeria’s central government, 12 northern states have introduced Islamic Sharia law.
Police did not give a breakdown of the death toll by state, but 60 would amount to the highest number of casualties the Taliban sect has suffered in clashes with Nigerian authorities.
At least 176 people were arrested in Bauchi in the wake of the violence, which also forced the governor to declare an overnight curfew starting Sunday.
"The curfew will be in place for as long as it requires to restore lasting peace in this city," said Isa Yuguda, adding that had it not been for good intelligence, the situation would have been worse.
More than 700 people died last November in Jos, capital of Plateau state, when a political feud over a local election degenerated into bloody confrontation between Muslims and Christians.
Sectarian clashes between Muslims and Christians in Bauchi state killed 14 people in February.
A Muslim mob went on the rampage, attacking Christians and burning churches in reprisals over the burning of two mosques, which Muslims blamed on Christians, they said.
One of the Nigerian Taliban leaders, Aminu Tashen-Ilimi, told AFP in a 2005 interview that the group intended to lead an armed insurrection and rid society of "immorality" and "infidelity."