Security forces have arrested a top commander of a radical Muslim sect who is accused of orchestrating attacks in the country's northeast that have left police, clerics and others dead, a governor said Wednesday.
Borno state Gov. Kashim Shettima told The Associated Press in an interview at his heavily guarded office that officials believe a negotiated peace can be reached with the sect known locally as Boko Haram.
However, he warned that those involved in the group who continue the sect's sectarian campaign of assassinations and bombings will be hunted down by the increasing military and police presence in his state.
"I believe the worst is over," Shettima said, adding that five others also were arrested and are being detained.
Shettima, a governor under the regional All Nigeria People's Party, came to power in the nation's April elections. In the time since, Boko Haram has launched a wave of attacks in and around Maiduguri, a dusty city in Nigeria's far northeast that borders with Cameroon, Chad and Niger, as well as the Sahara Desert.
The violence became so bad that university officials canceled classes in the town, and authorities banned all motorcycles since the group uses them to launch their attacks.
Now, soldiers in flak jackets and helmets sit behind sandbagged barriers along major roads, intersections and buildings, armed with heavy machines guns.
That presence, as well as other measures, have cut down violence in the city, Shettima said. Investigation by military and the police recently saw authorities arrested the man responsible for planning and orchestrating attacks around the city, the governor said.
Five others also were arrested and are being held by military and the police, Shettima said.
Boko Haram, whose name means "Western education is sacrilege," came to prominence in July 2009 when its members rioted in Maiduguri. The riots and an ensuing military crackdown left 700 people dead and the group's mosque in ruins.
The group, which wants strict implementation of Shariah law across Nigeria, re-emerged last year to carry out shootings and bombings.
Boko Haram maintains a loose command-and-control structure, allowing different groups to operate autonomously from each other, Shettima said.
"They operate in some sort of cells, some sort of units that interlinked, but generally they take directives from one commander," he said.
While mainly focused on local issues, Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the Aug. 26 car bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Nigeria that killed 23 people and wounded another 116. The commander for U.S. military operations in Africa has said that Boko Haram may be trying to coordinate attacks with al-Shabab of Somalia and north African group al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
While Shettima and others say progress is being made, residents of Maiduguri largely refuse to talk about the security situation in public. Privately, they say they remain scared of both Boko Haram and the security agencies, who have been accused of brutality in their new crackdown against the sect.
Nigeria, a nation of 150 million people, is split largely between a Christian south and a Muslim north. Unemployment and unceasing poverty, coming despite the nation making billions a year from oil production, have increased resentment in recent years in the north. Boko Haram tapped into that unrest, something the governor acknowledged.
"A political problem needs a political solution," Shettima said.
Jon Gambrell can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.