US warns sect may bomb Nigeria capital
LAGOS, Nigeria – The U.S. warned its citizens Wednesday that a radical Islamist sect may attack Nigeria's capital Abuja, including hotels frequented by foreigners, the second time it has advised such an assault is possible in the West African nation.
The warning offered no specifics about the threat posed by the sect known as Boko Haram, only saying that the Nigerian government was aware and taking precautions to stop such an assault.
The United Kingdom also issued an advisory to its citizens Wednesday noting the U.S. message, saying its "existing travel advice is consistent with this warning." Australia issued a similar warning notice to its citizens as well.
Deb MacLean, a spokeswoman with the U.S. Embassy, said she could not offer any other information about the warning. However, she said U.S. officials spoke with the Nigerian government before issuing the alert.
A similar alert issued in November angered Nigerian officials. On Wednesday, Nigerian Information Minister Labran Maku said such warnings "create undue panic among the general public" and gave too much attention to Boko Haram.
"I believe it is wrong," Maku said. "I believe it is creating panic and hate across the country."
However, the U.S. and U.K. issued a warning of a possible terrorist attack over the Easter holiday. Easter Sunday, a suicide car bomber detonated his explosives in the city of Kaduna after apparently turning away from a church, killing at least 41 people.
Early Wednesday morning, an Associated Press journalist in Abuja only saw private security guards checking cars at the major hotels in the capital. Most opened the trunks of cars and looked at vehicles' undercarriages with mirrors on telescoping poles. However, at the Sheraton, private guards appeared to be using a hand-held explosive detector when walking around vehicles.
The National Assembly also appeared to have more police officers guarding it Wednesday morning.
The U.S. issued a similar warning in November after Boko Haram launched an attack in the northeastern state of Yobe that killed more than 100 people. That warning specifically mentioned the capital's Hilton, Nicon Luxury and Sheraton hotels. With popular restaurants and bars, the hotels draw diplomats, politicians and even reformed oil delta militants.
It wouldn't be the first time Abuja saw itself targeted by Boko Haram, which has waged an increasingly bloody sectarian fight against Nigeria's weak central government. A suicide bomber claimed by Boko Haram attacked the United Nations headquarters in Abuja in August, killing 25 people and wounding more than 100 others. Another Boko Haram bomber targeted the federal police headquarters in June.
Still, most attacks have targeted Nigeria's arid and impoverished north, so any strike against hotels in Abuja would be an escalation that shows the group's ability to strike at will, even against foreigners and its elite.
Boko Haram, whose name means "Western education is sacrilege" in the Hausa language of Nigeria's north, is blamed for killing more than 430 people this year alone in Nigeria. The sect has rejected efforts to begin indirect peace talks with Nigeria's government. Its demands include the introduction of strict Shariah law across the country, even in Christian areas, and the release of all imprisoned followers.
Associated Press writer Bashir Adigun in Abuja, Nigeria contributed to this report.
Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellap.