Soldiers in tanks and armored cars besieged the shelled compound of a radical Islamist sect and sporadic gunfire exploded as hundreds of innocents fled Wednesday, the third day of fighting in Nigeria's northern city of Maiduguri.
Relief official Apollus Jediel said about 1,000 people had abandoned their homes Wednesday, joining 3,000 displaced this week in four states caught up in the violence.
It is not known how many scores of people have been killed. Police say most of the dead are militants, from a group that wants to impose Taliban-style rule across this multi-religious country of 140 million. Dozens of people have been arrested.
Reporters on the ground say the trouble started with militants attacking a police station in Bauchi state Sunday. Then they attacked police in Kano, Yobe and Borno, of which Maiduguri is the capital.
But President Umaru Yar'Adua disputed that, saying troops struck first.
"I want to emphasize that this is not an inter-religious crisis and it is not the Taliban group that attacked the security agents first, no. It was as a result of a security information gathered on their intention ... to launch a major attack," the Nigerian leader told journalists before he left Tuesday night for a state visit to Brazil.
"The situation is under control," Yar'Adua said
Gunbattles all night
But people around Maiduguri railway station area, a stronghold of the sect, said they were kept up all night by running gunbattles.
From dawn, people started streaming out, carrying bundles of belongings and cooking pots and braziers.
Sporadic bursts of gunfire erupted there Wednesday morning.
Also Wednesday morning, journalists saw several bodies of alleged militants sprawled outside the main police headquarters, where hundreds of people have sought safety. Others are camping at two military barracks.
The sect's compound has been cordoned off since Monday by police and soldiers reinforced Tuesday by elite troops under the command of Maj. Gen Saleh Maina.
On Tuesday, Maina launched a mortar attack on the sect's sprawling compound, which is believed to stretch for about four kilometers.
"The shelling of the strongholds of the religious sect, mosques and operational point must be precise and swift to prevent further loss of life and property in this state," Maina said.
Smoke billowed from the area after his forces attacked.
Authorities imposed curfews Tuesday night and security forces poured onto the streets.
The radical sect behind the latest violence is known by several different names, including Al-Sunna wal Jamma, or "Followers of Mohammed's Teachings" and "Boko Haram," which means "Western education is sin."
Some Nigerian officials have referred to the militants as Taliban, although the group has no known affiliation with Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.
Periodic riots and violence
Riots, religious conflicts, sectarian violence and communal fights over land and water explode periodically in northern Nigeria. According to reports commissioned over the years, they often are orchestrated by politicians and religious leaders.
Analysts say the recent trouble has brewed for months, as police began raiding militant hideouts and finding explosives and arms.
While Nigerian officials profess secularism, and religious and ethnic intermarriage is common, religion is a sensitive, often political, issue.
Muslim and Christian leaders have condemned the latest violence.
Religious leaders saw to it that the minarets of the national mosque and the tower of the main cathedral in Abuja, the capital, were the same height to promote unity amid sectarian violence unleashed at the end of military rule — most by Muslim northerners in uniform — in 1999.
Sectarian violence claims 10,000 lives
Shariah — Islamic law — was implemented in 12 northern states after Nigeria returned to civilian rule. More than 10,000 Nigerians have died in sectarian violence since then.
"Those who were excited about the possibility of Sharia have been disappointed. Corruption ... did not stop when it came in," said Junaid Mohammed, a former member of Nigeria's parliament. "People have been disappointed by the system and are looking for ways to vent their anger."
Violence was a common way of expressing political frustration in Nigeria, Mohammed added, pointing to the ongoing kidnappings and bombings in the Niger Delta, a southern region roiled by a struggle over oil money.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed concern at the reports of sectarian violence and called for those responsible to be brought to justice.
"I call upon the leadership of the government of Nigeria, law enforcement and security agencies, as well as the religious and community leaders to work together to address the underlying causes of the frequent religious clashes in Nigeria, so that a resolution could be found through dialogue, tolerance and also understanding," he told a news conference at U.N. headquarters in New York.
After eight years of rule by an elected southern Christian, all the main political parties nominated northern, Muslim candidates for the 2007 presidential race. Some said that was a necessity in this former British colony roughly split between a Christian-dominated south and a Muslim north where Arabs had ancient footholds.
Yar'Adua, who comes from an aristocratic Muslim family in the north, won the election. But he has struggled to overcome questions of legitimacy after thugs openly purchased votes, stole or stuffed ballot boxes, and intimidated voters. About 200 people died in election-related violence.
Yar'Adua also is challenged by a long-standing kidney ailment. His detractors say his health, charges he won power through fraud and his cautious personal style have made for an ineffective administration.
Curruption and poverty
Nigeria should be wealthy, with its copious oil reserves, but corruption and inefficiency have left most people impoverished. Despite promises of reform, Yar'Adua's government, like its predecessors, has failed to deliver even basic services like piped water and electricity.
The current unrest is expected to die down, as flare-ups have in the past.
Nnamdi K. Obasi, a Nigerian analyst with the International Crisis Group, said the militants don't have the weapons or numbers to have much impact beyond the north. But the trouble will return unless deeper issues are addressed.
"You're talking about improving governance as a whole," Obasi said. "Reducing corruption. Year after year, you don't see progress on these issues, and this is one of the biggest problems of Nigeria."