, MAIDUGURI, Jul 30 – Nigerian forces said they had killed 200 followers of an Islamist sect Thursday along with its deputy leader in a raid as they tried to crush the movement in its northern stronghold.
Troops pounded the self-styled Taliban’s base in the northern city of Maiduguri throughout the night and then gunned down followers as they tried to flee in the morning, witnesses and security sources said.
"We have taken over their enclave, they are on the run and we are going after them," Colonel Ben Ahonotu, the operation’s commander, told AFP.
Although the fate of the sect’s leader Mohammed Yusuf was unknown, a senior police officer said the Taliban’s deputy leader was among those killed.
"Abubakar Shekau was killed along with 200 followers …. while trying to escape," from a district of Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, the police officer told AFP on condition of anonymity.
A newspaper journalist said he counted the bodies of 90 Taliban followers in and around the mosque after the troops had finished pounding the building.
"About 70 bodies littered the areas around the mosque and the base of the Taliban. Inside the house (where Yusuf had been based) we came across 20 bodies," Mustapha Isa, a reporter with The Daily Trust newspaper, told AFP.
An AFP reporter in the city said that the fighting had now stopped, indicating the end of an operation which President Yar’Adua had ordered to crush the Taliban "once and for all."
Around 1,000 troop reinforcements were sent into Maiduguri overnight and the sounds of heavy and light machine gunfire rattled across the city.
At one stage on Wednesday night, the Taliban — who are also known as the Boko Haram — managed to torch a police station.
"A large crowd of Boko Haram members stormed the police station around 10pm and set it on fire," said Umar Shitu, a resident who witnessed the attack.
The security forces however later got the upper hand over the Taliban, some of whom tried to flee undercover, cutting off their hair and beards.
"We spotted dozens of members of Boko Haram fleeing. They stopped by briefly, shaved their hair and beard and discarded their jellabiyah (white arabic caftans) for tee-shirts and jeans," said local resident Hamad Bulunkutu.
"They crossed the Gamboru market river and disappeared from there."
At least 600 people have been killed in the five days of clashes in Borno and three other northern states, according to figures from police and witnesses.
Maiduguri has seen the worst of the unrest in northern Nigeria which started on Sunday in nearby Bauchi state when militants attacked a police station.
Police sources said at least 3,000 residents were displaced although many later returned to their homes.
Food was also running out, with shops and businesses shut since Monday.
The Taliban emerged in 2002 in Maiduguri before setting up a camp on the border with Niger, from where they launched a series of attacks on the police.
The leadership has previously said it intends to lead an armed insurrection and rid the society of "immorality" and "infidelity".
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.