REPORTING FROM JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA -- Boko Haram, the radical Islamic group in northern Nigeria, has killed 935 people since 2009, the bulk of them in the last year, Human Rights Watch reports.
Last year Boko Haram's attacks grew more sophisticated and aggressive, with the militants launching suicide bombings and drive-by shootings that killed about 550 people, the rights group said. In the first few week of this year, Boko Haram launched 51 attacks, more than two a day on average, killing 253 people.
U.S. officials fear the group's change in tactics and increased use of suicide bombers indicates growing links and support with Al Qaeda or its affiliates on the continent.
Its most deadly attack last week in the country's second-largest city, Kano, killed 185, according to Human Rights Watch. Late Friday the militants launched suicide bombings and other attacks against the police headquarters, security headquarters, three police stations, a police barracks and other government buildings as armed Boko Haram fighters clashed with security officials.
Most of the dead were residents of the northern city; about 34 were security or government officials. Police said that they found 10 vehicles loaded with explosives after Friday's attacks.
Nigeria is divided between the mainly Muslim north and mainly Christian south. Boko Haram is fighting to impose Sharia law and Islamic education across the entire country, including in predominantly Christian areas. It has targeted Christian churchgoers and church figures in recent attacks.
On Christmas Day, Boko Haram militants bombed a Roman Catholic Church in Madalla, in the northern state of Niger, killing 40 people.
“Boko Haram is targeting and killing people in northern Nigeria based on their religion and ethnicity,” said Corinne Dufka, a West Africa analyst for Human Rights Watch. “The Nigerian government has an obligation under international law to protect its citizens. The authorities need to step up security, with additional police and regular patrols in communities at risk.”
Last week, a suspect accused of orchestrating the Christmas Day church bombing in Madalla escaped police custody, leading to accusations of official corruption or involvement. Human Rights Watch said that several other Boko Haram suspects captured by police had escaped under similar suspicious circumstances.
A man and his wife died in their Kano home Tuesday when Nigerian police attacked what they said was a hideout for Boko Haram extremists.
"He was a simple man know to be peaceful and as far as I know he has never been questioned by the security over any links with Boko Haram," the man's cousin, Shehu Idris, told the Agence France-Presse news service.
Nigeria's Vanguard newspaper on Tuesday reported a claim by Boko Haram that it was paid thousands of dollars a month in protection money by some governors in the northern states of Kano and Bauchi in return for refraining from attacks there. These payments had recently stopped, according to the report, citing an anonymous Boko Haram official, which couldn't be independently verified.
A Boko Haram spokesman said Friday that the attacks were in response to the authorities' refusal to release the group's members from police custody.
-- Robyn Dixon
Photo: A police officer walks past the ruins of a market outside the state police headquarters in Kano, Nigeria, on Tuesday. Credit: Sunday Alamba / Associated Press