Nigeria death toll passes 300

TROOPS struggled to crush an Islamist sect in northern Nigeria today as the death toll from four days of clashes surged past 300 and thousands of people were forced from their homes.
Police sources said fighting was concentrated in Maiduguri city, the base of the self-styled Nigerian Taliban, following orders from President Umaru Yar'Adua for the armed forces to crush the movement "once and for all".
But fresh clashes were reported elsewhere, including Yobe state where police said 43 people were killed today, and fighting raged throughout Maiduguri.
"We are carrying out mortar shelling on the positions of these militants," Colonel Ben Ahnatu, the commander of the operation in Maiduguri, said. "It's time for action, not just talking."
Another police source said that fighting was centred around five neighbourhoods and was at its most intense in Bayan Quarters where the sect's leader Mohammed Yusuf was based.
Yusuf's home was shelled by forces yesterday, along with a mosque where many of his followers had gathered, but Yusuf appeared to have escaped.
"The house and the mosque have been pulverised and reduced to rubble," the police source said.
He said the offensive to rout the militants was likely to take longer than previously thought.
"To be honest with you I don't think the campaign will be finished within the next day or two," he said. "Part of the obstacle the troops are facing is that there are still civilians in some of these neighbourhoods. Therefore troops need to be cautious."
Residents said it appeared that troops were now closing in on the last of the militants while human rights activists counted at least 10 new bodies.
A brief phone conversation with one of the Taliban leaders, Aminu Tashen-Ilimi, was punctuated by the sounds of heavy shelling in the background and chants of Allah Akbar (God is Great).
"Don't you know we are being bombarded, how can I speak to you in this situation?" he said.
 Maiduguri, capital of Borno state, has seen the worst of the unrest in northern Nigeria since clashes first erupted on Monday in Bauchi state when militants launched an attack on a police station.
But fresh fighting was also reported today in Yobe state where troops are hunting down scores of militants believed to have fled into forests on the outskirts of Potiskum town.
A police source said at least 43 had been killed in today's gun battles there, adding 10 armoured tanks were guarding a nearby central prison which authorities suspect is the militants' target.
"The 43 corpses are on their way to the police headquarters in Damaturu (state capital) in two police vans," said the source who demanded anonymity.
Although four states have been caught up in the violence, most of the casualties appear to have been in Maiduguri where a police source said at least 206 people died on Tuesday alone.
A tally of the police figures from violence shows that at least 304 people are known to have died. The unrest is the deadliest in Nigeria since November last year when human rights groups say up to 700 were killed in the central city of Jos in direct clashes between Muslims and Christians.
Polices sources said at least 3000 residents were displaced although many later returned to their homes. Some sought temporary shelter at the police headquarters where around 20 bodies of slain fighters could be seen on the ground, some of them beginning to swell and decompose and attracting swarms of flies.
Food is also running out as shops and businesses have been shut since Tuesday.
"The food situation is terrible. All markets and shops are closed. We are eating garri (cassava flour porridge) and sugar," said a resident, Mohammed Awwan Mujahid.
The Nigerian extremists emerged in 2002 in Maiduguri before setting up a camp on the border with Niger, from where they launched a series of attacks against the police.
The leadership has previously said it intends to lead an armed insurrection and rid society of "immorality" and "infidelity".
Muslim clerics in Nigeria have slammed the violence as "criminal".
"It's unfortunate and an embarrassment to the Muslims," Abdulkarim Mohazu, secretary general of Nigeria's Jama'atul Nasril Islam, an umbrella body of Muslims in the country, said.
Northern Nigeria is mainly Muslim, although large Christian minorities have settled in the main towns, raising tensions between the two groups.
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