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700 died in violence, Nigerian official says

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria — A Nigerian military official said Saturday that about 700 people were killed in the northern city of Maiduguri during recent fighting between police and a radical Islamist sect. The toll was previously thought to be around 300.

Col. Ben Ahanotu told The AP Saturday that mass burials have begun because bodies were decomposing in the heat. The Islamist compound destroyed this week by government troops is one of the burial sites, he said.

"They've got almost 700 bodies," Ahanotu, who is in charge of security in Maiduguri, said of officials gathering bodies.

"Right there, they had to do a mass burial there because there are a lot of bodies inside," he said, pointing to what used to be the Boko Haram sect leader's compound. It is now smoldering rubble with digging equipment around it.

The fighting affected other northern cities, too. The total death toll is unknown.

Maiduguri, the Borno state capital, was largely quiet Saturday. Its streets had been cleared of bodies and the blood spilled during five days of fierce fighting. Banks and markets have reopened.

But sporadic violence continued.

In the parking lot of the Umaru Shehu hospital, Associated Press reporters saw the body of a young man with his hands tied behind his back, dead from a bullet through the back of his head.

A hospital official, who asked not to be named because he feared more violence, said five other people had been killed Saturday, their bodies left in the parking lot. He said 172 bodies had been brought to the hospital since Tuesday.

He said people were coming to the hospital Saturday to remove sick relatives so they wouldn't get caught up in the violence.

Destruction was evident Saturday only in some areas of the city: The police building was in ruins and smoke rose from the destroyed compound of the sect's leader, where bodies were now buried. The compound was guarded by soldiers armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.

A bloodied man, alleged to be a member of the sect, lay beneath a tree, his hands tied behind his back, guarded by the soldiers.

Borno Police Commissioner Christopher Dega said the members of the Boko Haram sect are likely in hiding and may be using the current calm to regroup.

"I am warning all of you to report immediately if such members are fighting," Dega told reporters late Friday.

Associated Press reporters saw two men heavily sweating as they were questioned by soldiers outside the compound. They were later released.

One of them, 35-year-old Ibrahim Mohammed, told the AP that he and his family cowered in their house for days, terrorized by knife and sword-wielding sect members — then later by soldiers, who, he said, would shoot anything that moved.

"It was terrible," Mohammed said as he drew an imaginary knife across his throat. "At first if you run, (the sect) will knife you, and then after you run, (soldiers) will shoot you."

He said he hid 17 Christian neighbors, including a pregnant woman, in his house during the fighting.

In a wave of violence that began Sunday, July 26, in Bauchi and quickly spread to three other northern states, including Borno, the sect, Boko Haram — the name means "Western education is sacrilege" — attacked police stations, churches and government buildings. The group is seeking the imposition of strict Islamic Shariah law in Nigeria, a country of several religions.

On Wednesday, troops retaliated, killing about 100 people, half of them inside the sect's mosque. The bodies of barefoot young men littered the streets of Maiduguri on Thursday morning as security forces hunted militants.

An Associated Press reporter saw dead bodies piled into at least six trucks in the hospital's parking lot on Wednesday.

Mohammed Yusuf, head of the Boko Haram sect, was killed Thursday after he was found hiding in a goat pen at his in-laws' home. The details of his death remain murky.

Nigeria's Civil Rights Congress, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International called for investigations into Yusuf's death and other killings during the upheaval in predominantly Muslim northern Nigeria.