Kano: Nigeria`s top Islamic leader on Monday accused the military of fleeing when Boko Haram attacks and terrorising civilians, in the harshest ever criticism from the key cleric, as violence persisted in the northeast.
A statement from the country`s top Muslim body, the JNI, described the military`s handling of the five-year Islamist uprising as "unfortunate, worrisome and embarrassing".
The JNI speaks for Nigeria`s top cleric, the Sultan of Sokoto Muhammad Sa`ad Abubakar.
"Soldiers take to their heels and abandon their bases, arms, ammunition and other military hardware on the approach of the insurgents!" the statement said.
"Nigerian Security Forces only surface after the deadly attacks and terrorise an already terrorised people by installing road blocks and searching homes," it added.
The condemnation came after similar remarks last week from Nigeria`s number two Islamic cleric, the Emir of Kano, and will likely infuriate President Goodluck Jonathan`s government, which expects traditional monarchs to abstain from political commentary.
In a speech released at the weekend, defence spokesman Chris Olukolade meanwhile accused the media and other "campaigners" of distorting the military effort against Boko Haram, tarnishing Nigeria`s global image and hurting troop morale.Another attack occurred Monday, when suspected Boko Haram gunmen entered a market in the northeast town of Damasak at about 11:00 am (1000 GMT) and opened fire on unarmed traders, a military officer and a local government official told AFP.
The militants were disguised as traders, carrying containers they claimed were full of goods for sale but which in fact were stuffed with AK-47 rifles, the official, Mohammed Damasak, said.
The gunmen "inflicted horror", he said, adding: "Many traders escaped with bullet wounds while many are lying dead at the market."
A military officer with direct knowledge of the attack but who requested anonymity said soldiers had deployed to the market and were battling the militants "for control of the town".
Damasak, in northeast Borno state, is close to the Niger border, a remote region with a poor telephone network.
It was not immediately possible to establish a death toll or whether the Islamists had chased out the military.
Boko Haram is believed to have taken over more than two dozen towns in recent weeks as part of a campaign to establish a strict Islamic state in the northeast. The tough JNI statement will likely ratchet up tensions ahead of Nigeria`s general elections in February.
The main opposition All Progressives Congress is widely expected to nominate a candidate from the mainly Muslim north against Jonathan, who is a southern Christian, and Nigeria`s religious divide will be a key factor in the vote.
The JNI, speaking on behalf the Sultan, condemned the recent Boko Haram violence while urging the government "with the loudest voice, to wake up to its fundamental and obligatory responsibility of protecting lives".
It accused the government of "wallowing in diatribe" against a growing number of critics who say the military response to Boko Haram`s five-year uprising has been woefully inadequate.
Also on Monday, the Sultan met the head of Nigeria`s main Christian organisation at a roundtable in Abuja, the nation`s capital that sits between the mainly Muslim north and predominately Christian south.
Christian leader Ayo Oritsejafor sought to draw attention to attacks on churches, though Muslims have repeatedly been targeted as well in Boko Haram`s five-year insurgency.
"It will be wrong to say they don`t kill Muslims, please don`t misunderstand me," said Oritsejafor, head of the Christian Association of Nigeria.
"But if you go to a city like Mubi (northeastern Nigeria), no church is standing as I speak. Every church in that city has been levelled."
The Sultan said recommendations put to President Jonathan on how to end the violence in a letter from him and Oritsejafor two years ago seemed to have been ignored.
"We can only advise. We do not have constitutional powers to implement," he said.
Jonathan, on a visit to Chad, had not reacted to the comments, but said in a statement that Nigeria needed help from its neighbours in battling the Islamists.