An hours-long gun battle raged on Saturday in a northern Nigerian city that's the spiritual home of a radical Islamist sect, and a car bomb exploded during a gun fight with members of the group in another city in the restive region, authorities said. At least six people were killed.
Gunfire and explosions echoed through the city of Maiduguri, which once held the main mosque for the sect known as Boko Haram. During the gun fight, anxious soldiers forced more than 200 residents to lay face down on the burning asphalt of a major roadway in the city approaching the Sahara Desert.
One witness in Maiduguri said soldiers told those gathered to remain face down until curfew the next morning.
"We have never heard so fierce a gun battle as automatic rifles continue to sound endlessly forcing most of us to scamper into our homes, while many motorists who got stuck in traffic abandoned their vehicles and escaped to safety on foot," a local resident Haruna Babayo said Saturday night.
Military spokesman Lt. Col. Sagir Musa said the gun battle began near the city's main railway depot, the site where Boko Haram once had its main mosque. He said four suspected sect members died in the battle, but gave no details about casualties among the security forces.
"As to the people that are made to lie down, that is for their own good," Musa said. "It is in their best security interest so as for them not to get caught up in the crossfire or be hit by stray bullets."
Meanwhile Saturday in the northern city of Kano, the military said it killed two suspected Boko Haram members in a gun battle that left two soldiers seriously wounded after a car bomb detonated during a raid on a suspected hideout for the group.
Brig. Gen. Iliyasu Abba told journalists the attack occurred around 1 am Saturday in the Sabuwar Gandu neighborhood of Kano. Abba said authorities arrested four wives and eight children at the compound after the blast, which left broken glass, blood and part of the home destroyed.
Boko Haram, whose name means "Western education is sacrilege" in the Hausa language of Nigeria's Muslim north, has been blamed for more than 360 killings this year alone, according to an AP count. The sect, employing suicide bombers and assault-rifle shootouts, has attacked both Christians and Muslims, as well as the United Nations' headquarters in Nigeria.
Authorities also blame the sect for the kidnapping of a British and Italian hostage who were killed in a failed rescue operation March 8, though a sect spokesman has denied the group's involvement.
The sect has rejected efforts to begin indirect peace talks with Nigeria's weak central government. The group's demands include the introduction of strict Sharia law across the country, even in Christian areas, and the release of all their imprisoned followers.