Nigeria: Thousands flee violence in northeast

MAIDUGURI, 29 July 2009 (IRIN) - Government emergency management teams in Nigeria are distributing blankets and water to thousands of people displaced from the northeastern city of Maiduguri following clashes between an armed group calling for strict Islamic rule and Nigerian security forces.

Remaining residents are holed up in their homes and goods at local shops are scarce.

Violence broke out on 26 July when members of the group, known locally as the Nigerian Taliban or as Boko Haram, attacked a police station in Bauchi state following the arrest of some of their leaders. Clashes spread to Yobe, Kano and Borno states in the following days.

On 28 July some 3,000 people fled Bayan Quarters, a Maiduguri neighbourhood where the latest round of fighting took place, and though many have returned home, others are now sheltering in the Maimalari and Giwa army barracks on the outskirts of the city, residents told IRIN.

Nigerian Red Cross workers are distributing plastic sheeting and food to some of the displaced, using local Red Cross stocks. The relief workers are assessing conditions in the three affected states, according to disaster manager Attah Benson.

Most people fled after security forces shelled the group's headquarters and home of its leader Mohammed Yusuf, in response to the group's attack on police headquarters on 27 July, Maiduguri police official Isa Azare told IRIN.

The National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) has also sent a relief team to nearby Bauchi state, director Mohammed Audu-bida said in a 28 July communiqué.

Most of Maiduguri's streets were deserted on 29 July as remaining residents have locked themselves in their houses.

"All the markets and shops remain closed due to the fighting," resident Suauwalu Hamisu told IRIN. "Neighbourhood shops are running out of supplies."

Maiduguri government worker Shafiu Mohamed told IRIN: "I fled with my wife and six children to this hotel to escape the battle that is going on in my neighbourhood. I pray the fighting will stop soon so can return to my house."

Security forces have shot suspected members of the extremist group, according to eye-witnesses. Press reports say over 300 people have died across the four states, most of them in Maiduguri.

A Maiduguri policeman who requested anonymity told IRIN he counted 197 dead "militants" and nine dead police officials – five of them trainees from a police college.

On 28 July Nigerian President Umaru Yar'Adua ordered security agencies to "take all necessary action" to suppress the attacks.

Police official Azare told IRIN: "We just want the violence to stop. We have a delicate situation on our hands. We are fighting a daring and fearless group of extremists…they were so daring they attacked our headquarters. They came armed in their hundreds and we had to fight hard to repel them."

Tensions have reportedly been mounting between Yusuf's followers and the local authorities, with threats and raids occurring in recent weeks, according to local press reports.