updated 7/27/2009 2:03:20 PM ET 2009-07-27T18:03:20

Radical Islamist militants opposed to Western-style education in Nigeria launched attacks on police in three northern towns Monday, expanding a campaign of violence that has killed at least 55 people so far, police and witnesses said.

Trouble began Sunday when militants attacked a police station in the northern city of Bauchi, leaving dozens dead in gunbattles with police. Then on Monday, militants launched a new wave of attacks in three more states, targeting the towns of Maiduguri, Damaturu, Wudil in the predominantly Muslim north, police and residents said.

National police chief Ogbonnaya Onovo put the overall toll at 55 dead at least — 50 militants and five police.

Nigeria has been sporadically wracked by sectarian clashes since 12 of the country's 36 states began adopting Islamic law, or Shariah, in the predominantly Muslim north in 1999.

Little is known about the latest violence, however. Residents in the north are referring to the Islamists as "Boko Haram," which means "western education is sin" in the local Hausa dialect. National police chief Ogbonnaya Onovo referred to the militants as Taliban, apparently because of their radically conservative views. The group has no known links to Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.

A local newspaper, Daily Trust, quoted the leader of the Islamic sect, Ustaz Mohammed Yusuf, as saying his followers are ready to die to ensure the institution of a strict Islamic society.

"Democracy and (the) current system of education must be changed, otherwise this war that is yet to start would continue for long," he said.

Police chief vows group's arrest
Onovo vowed that police would arrest the group's leaders.

"This a fanatical organization that is anti-government, anti-people. We don't know what their aims are yet; we are out to identify and arrest their leaders and also destroy their enclaves, wherever they are," Onovo said.

In Damaturu, capital of Yobe state, militants bombed a police station, said national police spokesman Emmanuel Ojukwu.

In Kano state's Wudil district, Islamic militants attacked another police station, according to local police spokesman Baba Muhammad in Kano. He said three militants were killed and two police officers were wounded in a shootout, and 34 militants were arrested.

Some of the worst violence Monday was in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, where militants battled police for hours. Onovo said he had sent "reinforcements to our men in Maiduguri to be able to cope with the situation."

Gunbattles wound many
A journalist for the local Compass newspaper in Maiduguri, Olugbenga Akinbule, said he saw the bodies of about 100 Islamist militants shot in gunbattles with police in the town, though authorities did not confirm that toll. He said militants attacked a police headquarters there, burned 10 houses inside the police compound, and freed prisoners from a state prison.

Onovo said police in Maiduguri on Sunday raided a house being used by the militants, but only after a homemade bomb exploded in the home accidentally, killing one militant and injuring another. Police who arrived at the scene afterward "recovered many bags of explosives and different types of dangerous weapons," Onovo said.

On Sunday, a police spokesman in Bauchi, capital of the state of with the same name, said 39 militants were killed by the police and more than 150 others were arrested after Islamic militants attacked a police station.

More than 10,000 Nigerians have died in sectarian violence since civilian leaders took over from a former military junta in 1999, though in recent years such violence has eased.

Nigeria's 140 million people are nearly evenly divided between Christians, who predominate in the south, and primarily northern-based Muslims. Shariah was implemented in a dozen northern states after the country returned to civilian rule in 1999 after years of oppressive military regimes.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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