MAIDUGURI, Nigeria -- At least 61 people have been killed during several days of fighting in northeast Nigeria between security forces and a radical Muslim sect responsible for a series of increasingly bloody attacks in Africa's most populous nation, authorities said Saturday.
The fighting between suspected members of the sect known as Boko Haram and a joint task force of police and military began Thursday in Borno and Yobe states in Nigeria's arid northeast corner bordering Cameroon, Chad and Niger. The fighting left residents cowering in their homes amid gunfire and explosions.
At least 50 people have died in Damaturu and Potiskum in Yobe state during the fighting, local police commissioner Lawan Tanko told The Associated Press on Saturday. In Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, a mortuary official who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter told the AP at least 11 bodies had been brought in from the fighting.
The violence left at least two senior police officers dead in Yobe state, while a military spokesman in Borno said that three churches had been bombed during attacks there.
In Yobe state, the fighting became so intense that the military ordered those living in a neighborhood surrounding Damaturu's central mosque to evacuate. After a deadline, soldiers riding in armored personnel carriers and tanks drove into the neighborhood shooting, Tanko said.
"We were able to kill 12 of the Boko Haram armed sect and bombers," Tanko said. The police commissioner said officers also recovered Kalashnikov rifles, ammunition and explosives.
Boko Haram has launched a series of bombings against Nigeria's weak central government over the last year in its campaign to implement strict Shariah law across the nation of more than 160 million people home to both Christians and Muslims.
Boko Haram claimed responsibility for a Nov. 4 attack on Damaturu, Yobe state's capital, that killed more than 100 people. The group also claimed the Aug. 24 suicide car bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Nigeria's capital that killed 24 people and wounded 116 others.
Little is known about the sources of Boko Haram's support, though its members recently began carrying out a wave of bank robberies in the north. Police stations also have been bombed and officers killed.
Boko Haram has splintered into three factions, with one wing increasingly willing to kill as it maintains contact with terror groups in North Africa and Somalia, diplomats and security sources say.
The sect is responsible for more than 450 killings in Nigeria this year alone, according to an AP count.
Jon Gambrell reported from Lagos, Nigeria and can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.