An hours-long gun battle punctuated by explosions rocked a northeast Nigeria city on Tuesday, as gunmen in another city in the country's Muslim north killed police officers in attacks that left at least 19 people dead, officials said.
The violence, which authorities blamed on a radical Islamist sect known as Boko Haram, targeted the cities of Kano and the northeastern city of Maiduguri, where the group once had its main mosque. The heaviest fighting occurred in Maiduguri, as soldiers fired on suspected sect members for several hours as bomb blasts echoed across the city, witnesses said.
Military spokesman Col. Victor Ebhaleme told journalists Tuesday night that all those killed were "Boko Haram terrorists" and that the military suffered no casualties on its side. Soldiers also recovered weapons and ammunition in the operation which targeted areas authorities believed served as hideouts for the sect in the arid, dusty city, Ebhaleme said.
However, a man who lives in the neighborhood where the fighting took place later said that some civilians had been struck stray bullets in the fighting.
"I almost got home, but I saw soldiers shooting and I had to run back on foot," the man said. He spoke on condition of anonymity as he feared angering either the military or Boko Haram.
The crowded neighborhood, called Lawan Bukar, is close to the palace of the region's traditional ruler, the Shehu of Borno. It also is an area where suspected Boko Haram members recently beheaded two civilians and shot dead a politician.
Meanwhile, in Kano, gunmen suspected to belong to Boko Haram opened fire and killed a retired deputy inspector-general of Nigeria's federal police, as well as two other officers in the city. Kano state police spokesman Rilwan Mohammed confirmed the attack took place, but declined to offer additional details.
Nigeria faces a growing wave of sectarian violence carried out by Boko Haram, whose name means "Western education is sacrilege" in the Hausa language of Nigeria's predominantly Muslim north. The sect has been blamed for killing more than 560 people this year alone, according to an Associated Press count. The sect's targets have included churches, often attacked by suicide car bombers.
Boko Haram, which speaks to journalists through telephone conference calls at times of its choosing, could not be immediately reached for comment Tuesday night. The sect most recently claimed responsibility for a suicide car bombing that struck a church in the northern state of Bauchi on Sunday that killed at least 15 people and wounded dozens more.
Nigeria, a nation of more than 160 million people, is divided between a largely Muslim north and Christian south. Boko Haram attacks have inflamed tensions between the two religions, though many in the faiths live peacefully with each other and intermarry in Africa's most populous nation.
Associated Press writer Ibrahim Garba in Kano, Nigeria, contributed to this report.