LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — A "group of terrorists" masquerading as herders have been arrested in Nigeria's central-east Taraba state, the military said Wednesday amid indications that the country's Islamic uprising is spreading.
The latest report further undermines government assurances that the Islamic insurgents have been contained in a remote northeastern corner of the country.
One of the detainees confessed he was a member of the Boko Haram terrorist network who had been operating in northeast Borno and had recently been deployed to Taraba, according to a statement from Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Chris Olukolade.
The military had been searching for Fulani herdsmen accused of recent attacks that have killed dozens of people in a region where conflict over land and water resources between the semi-nomadic herders, who are mainly Muslim, and predominantly Christian farmers has turned increasingly deadly.
Instead, Olukolade said, they came upon "a group of terrorists operating under the guise of herdsmen" who engaged troops in a battle in which several of the rebels were killed. He did not say when the battle occurred.
The military's claim that the Islamic militants are operating in Nigeria's central states comes as the extremists have increased increased the number and geographic spread of terror attacks. Last week, a massive explosion at a busy bus station in Abuja, Nigeria's capital in the center of the country, killed at least 75 people and wounded 141. Boko Haram claimed that attack.
Just hours after the Abuja bombing, extremists kidnapped more than 250 girls and young women from a school in the remote northeast. Dozens of the students have escaped but about 230 still are missing.
Three weeks ago the governor of Benue state, which borders Taraba to the south, said he suspected that Islamic extremists were responsible for deadly attacks there that had previously been blamed on Fulani herders. Gov. Gabriel Suswam told The Daily Trust newspaper that attacks that killed more than 200 people in his state in March were being carried out by people with sophisticated weapons, not the homemade shotguns traditionally used by Fulani herders.
The government's failure to pursue and punish perpetrators in attacks in what is called the Middle Belt make the region ripe for Islamic extremists who say Muslims are being persecuted there, Human Rights Watch has warned.
"We carried out the (Abuja) attack because you killed Muslims in Plateau," said Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau in a video released over the weekend. He was speaking about an attack in which soldiers said they killed marauding Fulani herders but traditional leaders said the soldiers killed innocent people. Plateau state also is riven by conflict between herders and farmers.
There was no way to independently verify the reports, which come as President Goodluck Jonathan is expected to propose renewing a state of emergency imposed 11 months ago on the northeastern states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa, the traditional operating area of Islamic militants. Many northern governors have expressed their opposition, saying the emergency has brought untold hardships and failed in its primary mission to curtail the uprising.
Even as the government and military have weekly claimed to have the insurgents cornered and on the run, Boko Haram has increased the tempo and deadliness of its attacks. More than 1,500 people have been killed in the uprising so far this year, compared to an estimated 3,600 between 2010 and 2013.
Boko Haram fighters and camps have been found in neighboring Cameroon, Chad and Niger. The Islamic extremists pose the biggest threat to the security and cohesion of Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation of 170 million divided almost equally between Muslims living mainly in the north and Christians in the south.