The U.S. army provided counter-insurgency training to Nigerian troops battling a rise in attacks by Islamist militants, the Nigerian military has revealed.

More than 100 people have been killed in recent days by the radical Muslim sect Boko Haram, dubbed the “Nigerian Taliban”, in Nigeria's northeast. One rights activist described it as “a state of armed Islamist insurgency” likely to spread.

Nigeria has sought to crush the group with military force but faces criticism from human rights activists for alleged extrajudicial killings.

The military said some battalions had received training in the U.S. “The army is in the process of setting up a division that is effectively looking at warfare tactics,” a spokesman said. “Various battalions were in the United States earlier this year for training to that end.” It is though these include specialist units such as bomb disposal. U.S. officials confirmed it has a longstanding deal with Nigeria with soldiers travelling to America for training. It could not comment on whether the exercises was aimed at combating Boko Haram.

The U.S. embassy in Abuja said: “We have had a mil-mil relationship with the Nigerians for decades, principally supporting their peacekeeping efforts in Africa (Liberia, Sierra Leone, Darfur) and around the globe. In recent years, and at their request, we have also worked with them on their nascent counterforce. We do not know if any of these elements have been deployed in the north.” Boko Haram has overtaken militants in the oil-rich Niger delta as the country's main security problem. Loosely modelled on the Taliban in Afghanistan, it became active in 2003 and is focused mainly in the impoverished northern states.

Series of attacks

In 2009, Boko Haram staged attacks in the northeastern city of Bauchi and clashed with security forces in Maiduguri. Sect leader Mohammed Yusuf was captured and later shot dead in police detention. But fighters regrouped and last year raided a jail in Maiduguri, freeing hundreds of followers.

In December 2010, the sect said it was behind bombings in central Nigeria and attacks on churches in the northeast that led to the deaths of at least 86 people. At least 361 people have been killed this year, according to the Associated Press.

In June, a car bomb tore through a car park outside the police headquarters in the capital, Abuja, killing at least two people, demonstrating Boko Haram could attack the heart of Nigerian society. In August, Nigeria's first suicide bomber struck the U.N. building in Abuja, killing 23 people.

Nigerian leaders have tried to downplay the threat. But the mood in Maiduguri remains tense. Ali Sambo, coordinator of the National Emergency Management Agency, said: “It's a festive period and normally people would be out amusing themselves ... But everyone is fearful... There are roadblocks and a curfew.” — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2011

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