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Hundreds flee battle in north Nigeria

Associated Press / July 30, 2009

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MAIDUGURI, Nigeria - Soldiers in tanks and armored cars besieged the shelled compound of a radical Islamist sect and sporadic gunfire exploded as hundreds of innocents fled yesterday, the third day of fighting in the northern city of Maiduguri.

Relief official Apollus Jediel said about 1,000 people had abandoned their homes, 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

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.