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Shock as quiet home of Islam in Nigeria becomes scene of failed rescue that killed hostages
SOKOTO, Nigeria (AP) ' While violence has engulfed much of Nigeria's Muslim north in the last year, the city of Sokoto in its far northwest offered a slow-moving glimpse of peace in the nation's Muslim north, anchored by a faith enshrined here more than 200 years ago.
Camels loaded down with produce trudge across sandy roads as blacksmiths beat hot iron into crude hoes and machetes for farmers. The Sultan of Sokoto, the city's traditional ruler, remains the top spiritual leader of Muslims across the country and a moderate voice amid increasing attacks by a radical Islamist sect known as Boko Haram.
Now, however, that peace has been shattered. A failed raid Thursday by British and Nigerian commandos left a Briton and an Italian hostage dead. It also opened a new front on Nigeria's ongoing struggle with terrorism, showing any region across its north can be attacked ' and anyone, including foreigners, could be targeted.
"Further force and mistrust is not going to take us anywhere," warned Shehu Salihu Muhammad, a political science professor at the city's Usmanu Danfodiyo University. "It will only lead to further escalation."
On Saturday, the body of Italian hostage Franco Lamolinara arrived at Rome's Ciampino military airport, where officers stood at attention in a sign of respect before a hearse took his corpse to a hospital morgue for an autopsy. He and Chris McManus of Britain died Thursday in Sokoto's Mabera neighborhood, likely shot by their captors in a hasty execution as Britain's elite Special Boat Service and Nigerian authorities attempted to rescue them.
The commando raid has strained Britain's relations with Italy, where the country's president has complained about the "inexplicable" failure of authorities to consult with his government before launching the failed rescue. British Foreign Secretary William Hague has defended his country's decision, saying there was no time to confer and that Italy was informed only once the rescue mission was already under way.
McManus was working for the construction company B.Stabilini when he was kidnapped May 12 by gunmen who stormed his apartment in the city of Birnin-Kebbi, about 110 miles (180 kilometers) away from Sokoto. Lamolinara also was abducted. A German colleague managed to escape by scaling a wall, but a Nigerian engineer was shot and wounded.
A video later released showed the kidnappers claiming they belonged to al-Qaida and threatening to kill McManus and Lamolinara if their demands were not met. British officials worked for months trying to track down the men as rumors floated that they had been taken out of the country.
Britain's Foreign Office has said two men were held by terrorists associated with Boko Haram, which is blamed for more than 300 killings this year alone. A senior British government official has said the kidnappers appeared to be from an al-Qaida-linked cell within Boko Haram, but not within the group's main faction.
A spokesman for Boko Haram denied his group's involvement Friday. However, arrests of suspected sect members led authorities to the house the men were being held, a Nigerian official has said.
Those living around the home denied Saturday knowing the men who held the two hostages. A room in the compound had a cutout portion of the ceiling where the kidnappers apparently climbed through to sneak out of the home undetected. However, drugs and other material littering the ground suggested the two men had been held there, undetected, for some time.
The crime shocked residents of Sokoto, including Shehu Aliyu, 34, who runs a blacksmith shop near the city's center.
"Sokoto is a quiet place," Aliyu said in the Hausa language of Nigeria's north, blaming the kidnapping on outsiders.
But the roots of the violence sweeping Nigeria's north could be seen in the simple setting of his shop and the begging children gathered around outside. A February report by Nigeria's National Bureau of Statistics shows 81.4 percent of people in Sokoto and its surrounding state live in absolute poverty, earning the equivalent of $1 a day. Meanwhile, politicians in the oil-rich nation have easy access to the billions of dollars earned by crude production.
That poverty, coupled with joblessness and a lack of education, fuel extremism, Muhammad said.
"It's reflecting a crisis of governance," the professor said. "While people are daily wallowing in poverty, those who are in power are actually even suffering ' some diseases arising from over-affluence."
Meanwhile, those in government remain hesitant to talk about the failed raid. One official even asked a foreign journalist to request a letter from the state government to show he had authorization to have even traveled to Sokoto, despite routine commercial airline service to the city.
State police commissioner Baba Adisa Bolanta and a spokesman for Gov. Aliyu Wamakko declined to comment Saturday, referring questions to the State Security Service, Nigeria's secret police. The state director for the service did not respond to requests for comment.
Their hesitance to talk may come from simmering anger about British commandos, from Nigeria's former colonial rulers, being allowed by the government to launch an assault in the nation's Muslim north. Reuben Abati, a spokesman for President Goodluck Jonathan, declined to discuss the reasons why the government allowed British troops to carry out the attack.
He also referred questions to the State Security Service.
"They are the ones who have the information," he said.
Associated Press writer Frances D'Emilio in Rome contributed to this report.
Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellap.