, MAIDUGURI, Jul 29 – Nigerian troops were on Wednesday tracking down remnants of an Islamic fundamentalist sect who went on a violence spree killing more than 250 people in the Muslim-dominated north.
The offensive came after soldiers shelled the mosque and home of Mohammed Yusuf in Maiduguri, the capital of northern Borno state, to end an uprising by the self-styled Nigerian "Taliban" which has said it wants to lead an armed insurrection and rid society of "immorality" and "infidelity."
President Umaru Yar’Adua said late Tuesday the group would be hunted and punished.
The military operation under way will "contain them once and for all," he said, adding: "They will be dealt with squarely and forthwith."
Fresh fighting broke out here late Tuesday after the assault. An AFP correspondent witnessed soldiers shooting three young men dead at point blank range close to the city’s police headquarters.
The men, who had just been arrested, were seen kneeling and pleading for their lives before being shot.
During the assault, security forces overran the home of the elusive sect leader Yusuf and a nearby mosque used by his followers.
"We are not sure whether he has been killed in the shelling or has managed to escape," a police officer said of Yusuf.
"It is the first time in my life that I hear this kind of mortar shelling," exclaimed one man in a hushed tone, as he huddled in Maiduguri’s police station to seek shelter along with dozens of others.
"I thought they targeted my house," he said, bringing along his wife and three daughters.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed alarm over the latest bloodbath in Nigeria, one of Africa’s most volatile nations, and called for those guilty to be brought to book.
"The secretary general… condemns the unnecessary loss of human life and the destruction of property," a UN statement noted, adding that Ban had urged Abuja to take steps to ensure that sectarian violence did not flare up again.
The fighting began Sunday in nearby Bauchi state before spilling over into Yobe, and authorities said 55 were killed in both states.
However, most of the casualties appear to have been in Maiduguri, the northeastern city known as the birthplace and stronghold of the Islamic fundamentalist group.
Clashes between security forces and radical Islamists there on Monday alone killed at least 206 people, a police source told AFP.
An AFP reporter counted 30 bodies strewn across the grounds of the police headquarters on Tuesday before 10 more were brought in. Dozens of other bodies which littered the compound earlier had been taken away.
Yar’Adua had earlier placed security forces on maximum alert late Monday as the death toll mounted.
The unrest is the deadliest sectarian violence 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.
The fighting in the north erupted on Sunday in Bauchi state, when police hit back at militants after a foiled attack at a police station, and spread rapidly to neighbouring states.
The Nigerian extremists emerged in 2002 in Maiduguri before setting up in 2004 a camp – dubbed "Afghanistan" – in Kanamma village in Yobe, on the border with Niger, from where it attacked three police outposts and killed police officers.
Troops then moved in to raze the camp during battles in which scores were killed. Many were arrested while others went underground. Remnants re-emerged in Maiduguri.
Northern Nigeria is mainly Muslim, although large Christian minorities have settled in the main towns, raising tensions between the two groups.
Since the return of a civilian regime to Nigeria’s central government in 1999, 12 northern states have adopted Islamic Sharia law. The latest attacks, which independent security analysts say were co-ordinated, affected a third of these states.