(AP) A radical Islamist sect claimed responsibility Friday for attacks on mobile phone towers which have crippled communications in Nigeria's northeast, as security forces struggling to control the violence said they had gunned down seven suspected sect members.
At least 31 tower attacks occurred since Wednesday in six northern Nigerian states, from the central state of Kano to the far eastern state of Borno. The radical sect known as Boko Haram threatened six months ago to attack mobile phone companies.
A statement attributed to Boko Haram and emailed to local journalists late Thursday said the group "launched attacks on mobile phone company establishments because of the help they are giving to security agents." The statement, in the Hausa language of Nigeria's mainly Muslim north, said the cooperation of phone companies had led to sect members being tracked down and arrested.
Authorities have blamed Boko Haram for killing more than 670 people in drive-by shootings and bombings this year alone, according to an Associated Press count. The sect has demanded the release of all its captive members and has called for strict Shariah law to be implemented across Nigeria, a country of more than 160 million people evenly divided between Muslims and Christians. Its deadly campaign has targeted mosques, churches, schools and government and security buildings, but for the first time the assailants turned their attention to dozens of mobile phone towers, crippling communications in parts of this mobile-reliant West African nation.
At least two people were shot dead in an attack that left a tower burned in the northeastern town of Mubi, police said. The overall damage is likely worth millions of dollars, as experts say a tower costs about $450,000 alone and with antennas, generators and transmission equipment that can push that cost to more than $1 million. It could knock out communications for months in a region where even police and soldiers rely on mobile phones to coordinate their efforts.
In response to the attacks, Nigeria's Inspector-General of Police Mohammed Abubakar said in a statement Thursday night that a special unit would be put together to ensure round-the-clock surveillance of all telecommunication equipment and installations across the country. It was not immediately clear when the unit would be formed and begin operating.
Maiduguri, which appears to have been the worst hit city, was still reeling from a partial communication blackout when gunshots rang out Thursday night in the northeastern city's busy residential area of Gwange. The exchange of fire, which started hours after the tower attacks Thursday, pitted suspected Boko Haram members against a special unit of police and army, military spokesman Lt. Col. Sagir Musa said in a statement Friday. Seven suspected sect members were killed and 13 others were arrested, Musa said. He did not say if security officers suffered any casualties in the attack.
Associated Press writers Bashir Adigun in Abuja, Nigeria, and Yinka Ibukun in Lagos, Nigeria, contributed to this report.