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At least 700 died in Nigeria violence

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria — Government forces hunted on Sunday for surviving members of a radical Islamist sect after heavy fighting left at least 700 people dead and buildings and cars scorched.

No new fighting was reported but a military commander told The Associated Press that many sect members were still at large. Armed with machine guns, government troops sweating in tropical heat guarded the rubble of the sect's headquarters in this northern Nigerian city.

Moderate Muslim clerics and scholars said they had warned government officials about the sect's violent tendencies — and that the alarms went unheeded before Boko Haram militants attacked a police station in Bauchi state on July 26. Violence quickly spread to three other states before Nigerian forces retaliated, storming the group's Maiduguri compound.

Boko Haram is also known as the Nigerian Taliban. No direct link to al-Qaida has emerged but the bloodshed comes amid mounting concern about al-Qaida affiliates' ability to cross desert borders of North Africa. Many Boko Haram members were purportedly from neighboring Niger.

Boko Haram — translated as "Western education is sacrilege" — seeks the imposition of strict Islamic Shariah law in Nigeria, a multi-religious country that is a major oil producer and Africa's most populous nation. Sect leader Mohamed Yusuf was killed on Thursday. Suspicions that he had been executed after being captured grew deeper after a photo emerged Sunday on news Web sites showing him in custody of soldiers with only a wound to an arm.

Army Col. Ben Ahanotu said he personally arrested Yusuf in a goat pen and handed him over alive to police, who later claimed he died in a shootout. Police officials did not return calls seeking comment.

About 700 people were killed in Maiduguri alone, Ahanotu said. The death toll in other northern areas is unknown. Human rights groups claim civilians were also slain during the hunt for sect members.

"Only Allah knows how many lives have been lost," said Ibrahim Ahmed Abdullahi, a local imam or cleric, said Saturday. Abdullahi said he knew the sect's charismatic leader for 14 years. They had been friends but fell out when Yusuf began advocating violence.

More than 50 Muslim leaders repeatedly urged Nigeria's police, local authorities and state security to take action against the militants, but their pleas were ignored, Abdullahi said Saturday. Other scholars sitting with him on cheap plastic mats in a Maiduguri slum nodded in agreement.

"We used to call the government and security agents to say that these people must be stopped from what they are doing because it must bring a lot of trouble," Abdullahi said.

Christopher Dega, police chief in Borno state where the group had its compound, said authorities had been monitoring the sect and recognized it as a long-standing problem. It was not immediately clear if police received specific warnings about the July 26 attack.

Ahanotu said many sect members are still at large.

"After I arrested Mohamed Yusuf, I monitored his phone. They were calling from all over the place," he said. "There are lots of them still around ... only a few of them are still dangerous."

Ahanotu said he recommended several times that action be taken against the group but received no orders to do so.

"I complained a lot of times," he said. "I was told something would be done."

Burned-out cars lay upended Sunday in front of scorched police stations. The bodies were all gone — buried in mass graves.

Most sect members are young, unemployed and angry that the introduction of moderate Shariah law in 12 impoverished northern states 10 years ago has not halted the corruption that keeps most Nigerians in desperate poverty. Small green road signs in Maiduguri read "Fear Allah," but they are dwarfed by the huge billboards that trumpet the achievements of politicians.

On Sunday, the opposition Action Congress party released a statement criticizing the government for not tackling what it described as a key recruiting tool for groups like Boko Haram: the abject poverty of the north.

"When millions of our youths are unemployed and there is no hope of a better tomorrow, they become easy targets for apocalyptic preachers and mindless religious zealots," it said. "That is why this federal government must shake off its lethargy and address the myriad of problems facing this nation, so that our youths can channel their energies to productive ventures instead of becoming killing machines."

Associated Press writers Njadvara Musa in Maiduguri and Bashir Adigun in Abuja contributed to this report.