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Nigerian officials have confirmed that Mohammed Yusuf, the leader of the Islamist group Boko Haram, was killed Thursday by police, after a surge of violence in Nigeria this week that left hundreds dead. Human rights groups and Nigerian newspapers have raised questions about the police response to Boko Haram, which they say is marked by the use of excessive force and arbitrary killings.
Al Jazeera says there are conflicting reports on how Mr. Yusuf died. The govenment says he died during the Nigerian military's assault on Boko Haram's headquarters in the city of Maiduguri (click here for a map of the region).
"Mohammed Yusuf was killed by security forces in a shootout while trying to escape," Moses Anegbode, a police assistant inspector-general for northeastern Nigeria, told local BRTV state television. "I can confirm that he has been killed and the body is with us."
But reports circulating in Nigeria say the leader was killed in police custody after being captured unharmed, Al Jazeera says. Human Rights Watch called his death an "extrajudicial killing" and urged an investigation. The news service also reports that police may have killed people trying to flee the assault.
Nigerian security forces attacked a compound and mosque in Maiduguri after fighters from Boko Haram launched apparently co-ordinated attacks across four northern states. The complex was shelled overnight into Thursday before security forces shot many of those attempting to flee, witnesses and sources said.
Yusuf's death comes just days after members of the Boko Haram launched attacks upon police stations in three cities in northern Nigeria, leaving at least 150 dead and thousands displaced. Boko Haram, which means "Western education is prohibited," seeks the imposition of sharia, or Islamic law, in Nigeria, though The Christian Science Monitor reports that the group lacks popular support. But the Monitor writes that the group's actions indicate Nigerians' underlying frustrations with the government.
The BBC writes that one of its reporters was shown a pair of videos by the government: one of Yusuf apparently confessing to his role in the violence, and another of Yusuf's body. And Nigeria's Daily Trust newspaper writes that several human rights groups called for an investigation into the death of Yusuf and other members of Boko Haram.
The Trust writes that more than 300 people have been killed since the Nigerian military responded to the group, and rights groups warn that the death toll is indicative of the Nigerian forces' tendency toward "reprisal killings and the use of excessive force."
Nigeria Researcher for Human Rights Watch Eric Guttschuss told Daily Trust yesterday the HRW was concerned about reports of arbitrary killings by troops.
"The casualty figures are quite high," Guttschuss said in an emailed response to questions by our reporter. "There have been some reports of arbitrary killings by the security forces which of course concern us. The security forces have a history of reprisal killings and the use of excessive force. For example, last November the police and military [arbitrarily] killed at least 133 people during two days of inter-communal clashes in Jos. Eight months later the government has still not investigated those implicated in these crimes. The impunity enjoyed by members of the security forces emboldens them to commit serious crimes without fear of being held to account."
Nigeria's Daily Independent also notes the disparity between the Nigerian military and the Boko Haram, writing that the soldiers overwhelmed the Islamists, who were "armed with homemade hunting rifles, bows and arrows and scimitars."
Residents in Maiduguri and aid workers say the sect commands little loyalty among local communities, which have a tradition of tolerant Islam.
However, figures such as Mr Yusuf have been able to tap widespread disaffection in the north and the perception that liberal economic policies have benefited Christians in the south while entrenching poverty in the north.