LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — Security forces engaged Islamic extremists in a five-hour gunbattle that killed one suspect in Sokoto city in northwest Nigeria, the police reported Friday.
It's apparently the first report in a year of activity in Sokoto by suspected members of the Boko Haram, the extremist group that is blamed for attacks on schools that have killed dozens of children in its stronghold in northeast Nigeria.
Local news reports said the attackers were plotting to assassinate the Sultan of Sokoto, the pre-eminent leader of Nigeria's tens of millions of Muslims, who preaches against extremism. Boko Haram, whose name means "Western education is sacrilege," has in the past threatened to kill the sultan.
But deputy police superintendent Almustapha Sani told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Friday from Sokoto that he did not have any information about an assassination plot. He said one suspect captured in the shootout indicated the group was planning to rob banks and commercial centers to get money to buy arms.
Sani said five women and six children living with the militants were "rescued." The shootout began before dawn Thursday and lasted hours because security forces were afraid of killing civilians, he said.
"The terrorists use them as human shields so this was an extremely successful operation in that no security force member was killed and no civilian was killed," he said. The joint force of police, military and State Security Service intelligence officers attacked a home on the outskirts of Sokoto, acting on information that it was being used as a hideout by the militants. At least two extremists escaped, Sani said.
Sokoto state is not under the state of emergency that was declared May 14 in three northeast states where the government acknowledged the militants had taken over entire towns and villages. Thousands of troops deployed to halt the Islamic uprising have claimed success in pushing the extremists out of towns and many villages.
But attacks have continued, with the U.N. children's agency reporting 48 students and seven teachers slain since June in northeast Nigeria. On Friday, as Nigerian Muslims celebrated the third day of Ramadan fasting season, the Sultan of Sokoto appealed to his followers to "fervently pray for the peaceful co-existence and security and stability of Nigeria."
Boko Haram wants to institute strict Shariah law in all of Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation of more than 160 million people almost equally divided between Christians and Muslims. Extremists have killed more than 1,600 people since 2010, according to an AP count.
The Islamic uprising poses the greatest security threat in years to Africa's biggest oil producer.