Suspected members of a radical Islamist sect opened fire on a crowded market in northeast Nigeria Wednesday, killing at least seven people in an area protected by federal troops, witnesses and the police said.
The shooting happened in Maiduguri _ the spiritual home of the sect known as Boko Haram. The area has been under increased military protection for months in an attempt to stop violence.
While the military immediately sought to downplay the attack, it showed the ability of the sect to strike at will, despite assurances from Nigeria's weak central government that it will put down the growing insurgency.
The attack appeared to target Christian Igbo traders who work in Maiduguri's central market. The gunmen first shot an electronics salesman before heading into the rest of the market, where they attacked other Igbos who sell mosquito nets and other wares, witnesses said.
Soldiers who stood guard nearby fired wildly in the air to disperse civilians, but were unable to stop the escaping gunmen, witnesses said.
Military spokesman Lt. Col. Sagir Musa initially tried to downplay the attack, saying only one person died, despite witnesses seeing authorities carry away seven corpses. However, Borno state police spokesman Samuel Tizhe told The Associated Press that seven civilians had been killed.
Boko Haram, whose name means "Western education is sacrilege" in the Hausa language of Nigeria's north, is waging an increasingly bloody fight with security agencies and the public. More than 380 people have been killed in violence blamed on the sect this year alone, according to an AP count.
The sect, employing suicide bombers and assault-rifles shootouts, has attacked both Christians and Muslims, as well as the United Nations' headquarters in Nigeria, yet warned at the beginning of the year it would begin specifically targeting Christians who live in the north. Since then, a number of Igbo people from Nigeria's south who live in the region have been killed.
The sect has rejected efforts to begin indirect peace talks with Nigeria's government. Its demands include the introduction of strict Sharia law across the country, even in Christian areas, and the release of all imprisoned followers.
Boko Haram, which speaks to journalists through telephone conferences at times of its choosing, could not be reached for comment Wednesday night.
The market attack Wednesday comes after a series of violent assaults blamed on the sect Tuesday night. An attack on a police station saw gunfire sprayed across a neighborhood in the north Nigerian city of Kano. Though witnesses said locals had been wounded, police said no one was injured. Boko Haram previously attacked the city in a massive assault in January that left at least 185 people dead.
Military spokesman Musa said suspected sect members also shot dead an Igbo auto parts dealer in Maiduguri.
Officials also said four suspected Boko Haram gunmen were killed Tuesday night in Kano and Maiduguri.
Associated Press writer Salisu Rabiu in Kano, Nigeria contributed to this report.