By Tim Cocks
LAGOS (Reuters) - The United States is seriously concerned about abuses committed by Nigerian security forces that are fuelling support for the Islamist insurgency in the north, the U.S. assistant secretary for democracy and human rights said on Friday.
Addressing journalists in the commercial hub of Lagos, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour Michael Posner urged Nigerian forces to be disciplined in their use of force and abstain from violence against civilians.
His remarks added to several calls for Nigeria's security forces to change their approach to the insurgency, which critics say is driving angry youths into the arms of Boko Haram and encouraging the northern population to shelter them.
"We are ... seriously concerned about abuses by members of the Nigerian security forces in combating Boko Haram's extremist violence," Posner said after talks with Nigerian officials. "We have received numerous reports of mass arrests, extra-judicial killings, torture and prolonged detention without due process."
There was no immediate comment from Nigerian security forces, but they have denied such accusations repeatedly.
Posner's comments came two weeks after Amnesty International said abuses were worsening the insurgency they were meant to crush.
"Many Nigerians believe that the excessive use of force by security forces ... has alienated local populations and fuelled support for Boko Haram," Posner said, echoing that view.
Boko Haram says it wants to create an Islamic state in Nigeria. Its fighters have killed hundreds in bomb and gun attacks in an uprising that began in 2009, and it has replaced militancy in the oil-rich Niger Delta as Nigeria's top security threat.
U.S. officials see their relationship with Africa's top energy producer as strategic, particularly because its light, sweet crude is ideal for refining into gasoline.
Boko Haram's influence has been greatly boosted by a feeling of helplessness in the dry, impoverished north, as political and economic power has gradually shifted to the rival, oil-rich south over the past decade.
Drawing on its own mixed experiences of tackling Islamist insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States has urged Nigeria use development to win over hearts and minds.
"Many of those most affected by the Boko Haram violence in northern states seek increased economic opportunity ... and more meaningful political engagement in shaping their own destiny," Posner said. "The ... government's ability to meet these ... aspirations will be critical to the country's future stability."
President Goodluck Jonathan has been accused of treating the conflict as a security problem that can be solved with force alone, although he has pledged more jobs for deprived areas.
Posner acknowledged that Boko Haram needed to be fought militarily, but urged the government to make "political and economic inclusion" part of its strategy.
(Editing by Myra MacDonald)