By Jon Gambrell Associated Press
LAGOS, Nigeria — After a weekend of violence and fear, U.S. officials warned Sunday that luxury hotels frequented by foreigners and Nigeria’s elite may be bombed by a radical Muslim sect as the death toll from attacks in the country’s northeast rose to more than 100.
The warning by the U.S. Embassy shows how seriously diplomats take the threat posed by the outlawed Islamist group known locally as Boko Haram, which previously bombed the United Nations headquarters in the capital, Abuja, killing 24.
The unusually specific warning from the U.S. Embassy identified possible targets in Abuja as the Hilton, Nicon Luxury and Sheraton hotels. With popular restaurants and bars, the hotels draw diplomats, politicians and even reformed oil delta militants.
The embassy said an attack may come as Muslims in the oil-rich nation celebrate the Eid al-Adha holiday and that its diplomats and staff had been instructed to avoid those hotels.
Still, Nigerian officials continued to downplay the threat posed by the militants, hoping to reassure Africa’s most populous nation that everything remains under control in a country often violently divided by religious and ethnic differences.
“We’re all expected to live in peace, but as a nation, we have our own challenges,” President Goodluck Jonathan said in a speech televised nationally.
“During this holy period, we still have incidents happening here and there,” added Jonathan, a Christian, who appeared wearing a prayer cap and the traditional robes of the country’s Muslim north.
U.S. officials offered no other details about how the embassy received the threat information. Deb MacLean, a U.S. Embassy spokeswoman in Abuja, declined to comment Sunday.
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 the group attacked the U.N. headquarters in August, while another bomber targeted the federal police headquarters in June.
Still, most attacks have targeted Nigeria’s arid and impoverished northeast, 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.
The warning came as a Nigerian Red Cross official said more than 100 people were killed in a series of attacks Friday in the northeast.
Ibrahim Bulama said he expected the death toll to rise in Damaturu, the capital of rural Yobe state. He said mourners quickly buried some bodies in line with Muslim tradition, making a precise count difficult.
While the hard-hit city remained calm as its Muslim inhabitants celebrated the religious holiday Sunday, army and police units manned roadblocks and streets remained largely empty, Bulama said. The state government announced a dusk-to-dawn curfew for the entire state.
Meanwhile, a police inspector was killed Sunday in Boko Haram’s spiritual home of Maiduguri about 80 miles (130 kilometers) east of Damaturu. Sect gunmen stopped the officer’s car at gunpoint as he neared a mosque to pray with his family, police commissioner Simeon Midenda said.
Gunmen ordered the family away, then shot the inspector, Midenda said.
World leaders from the United Nations to Pope Benedict XVI have called for an end to the violence, though Nigerian officials largely have downplayed the threat. Jonathan has repeatedly said that all countries in the world face terrorism, while others have urged local journalists to exercise restraint in their reporting in the name of patriotism.
Despite the bombings and gun battles in northeast Nigeria, Defense Minister Mohammed Bello told journalists Sunday that “a lot of progress” has been made there.
“I believe our security agencies are doing very well in containing the situation,” Bello said.
Nigeria’s history, however, shows the government often waits until crises escalate out of control before responding with harsh military crackdowns. In 1980, the government suppressed a radical Muslim sect called the Maitatsine only after its members rioted, with the violence and subsequent crackdown leaving 4,000 dead.
Rumors had persisted then that the Maitatsine received aid from Nigeria’s elite, but became too much for politicians to control. Similar rumors now surround Boko Haram, which wants the strict implementation of Shariah law across Nigeria, a nation of more than 160 million split largely between a Christian south and Muslim north.
Other analysts suggest Jonathan, a Christian who took power after the 2010 death of an elected Muslim leader, remains unsure of his grip on the nation. The April election that saw Jonathan cement his hold on the presidency also sparked political and religious rioting across Nigeria’s north that left 800 people dead.
Boko Haram’s name means “Western education is sacrilege” in the local Hausa language. It rejects Western ideals like Nigeria’s U.S.-styled democracy. Followers believe that democracy has destroyed the country with corrupt politicians.
The latest attacks occurred ahead of Sunday’s celebration of the feast of sacrifice, when Muslims around the world slaughter sheep and cattle in remembrance of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son.
An Associated Press count shows the group has killed at least 361 people this year alone.
Associated Press Njadvara Musa in Maiduguri, Nigeria contributed to this report.
Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.