10,000 displaced by Muslim uprising in Northeast

At least 10,000 people fled their homes in northeastern Nigeria over the past two weeks following clashes in the region between the security forces and armed Islamic militants, government officials said on Tuesday.

Mohamed Powa, the head of Yobe State Emergency and Relief Materials Agency, told IRIN that more than half the population of Kanamma, a small town near the Niger border, which the militants briefly turned into their headquarters, had disappeared.

Large numbers of people had also abandoned their homes in the nearby towns of Geidam, Babangida and Dankalawar, he added.

Powa said the Yobe state authorities had begun distributing food, water and shelter materials to the displaced.

The militants belonged to the Al Sunna Wal Jamma (Followers of the Prophet) movement, which has existed for at least two years and enjoys a following among university students in Maiduguri, the main city in northeastern Nigeria.

The militants, who are seeking to create a fundamentalist Islamic state in Nigeria, are self-confessed admirers of the Taliban in Afghanistan. They flew flags bearing the word "Afghanistan" during their brief occupation of Kanamma.

A group of at least 200 militants attacked the police stations in Kanamma and Geidam, where they siezed guns and ammunition, before a joint force of riot police and soldiers was sent to confront them.

Following an initial confrontation with the security forces in Kanamma on 31 December, the militants attacked three police stations in the Yobe state capital Damaturu and set fire to a government building there. A further battle with the security forces took place on the outskirts of Maiduguri, 135 km east of Damaturu, the following day.

Yobe state governor Abba Ibrahim said on Monday that 10 people had died in the clashes - eight militants and two policemen. At least 10 Islamic militants had been captured and were undergoing police interrogation, he added.

Ibrahim said preliminary investigations showed that three of those detained were from neighbouring Niger, to which one group of militants retreated following the initial battle in Kanamma. Two others were Kano, the main city in northern Nigeria, and one had travelled from Lagos, the commercial capital in the south, to join the uprising.

"We want to find out where they got their guns, their buses and who gave them money," the Yobe state governor told reporters, adding that police were trying to determine whether the militants had received any foreign support.