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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States on Thursday named three alleged leaders of the Nigerian militant group Boko Haram as "foreign terrorists," the first time it has blacklisted members of the Islamist group blamed for attacks across Africa's most populous nation.
The State Department identified the three as Abubakar Shekau, calling him the "most visible" leader of the group, and Abubakar Adam Kambar and Khalid al-Barnawi, who it said were tied both to Boko Haram and to al Qaeda's north African wing.
"These designations demonstrate the United States' resolve in diminishing the capacity of Boko Haram to execute violent attacks," it said, saying that Boko Haram or associated militants were responsible for more than 1,000 deaths in the past 18 months.
The action by the State and Treasury Departments, first reported by Reuters on Wednesday, followed growing pressure on the Obama administration to take stronger action against Boko Haram, which has stepped up attacks on Christian places of worship this year in its drive to establish an Islamic caliphate in northern Nigeria.
U.S. officials say the decision to list individual Boko Haram members, rather than apply the more sweeping "Foreign Terrorist Organization" label to the group as a whole as some U.S. lawmakers have demanded, reflected a desire not to elevate the group's profile.
"We took this measure to designate these three because they are clearly kingpins of Boko Haram and clearly all of them have advocated terrorism as a weapon," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told a news briefing.
"We're continuing to look at the question of a broader designation."
Two Republican lawmakers who led the campaign for a broader designation said the move against the three was insufficient, saying the intelligence community needed every available tool to combat Boko Haram
"Given Boko Haram's trajectory and intent to carry out terrorist attacks against Western targets, including possibly the Homeland, we must take the growing threat seriously," Representatives Peter King and Patrick Meehan said in a statement.
The action freezes any assets the three men have in the United States, and bars U.S. persons from any transactions with them.
The United States has signaled growing concern over Islamist extremist groups operating in Africa, particularly al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, which has expanded its influence in the lawless Sahel region and funds operations by collecting kidnap ransoms or siphoning off the drug trade.
The United States has also sought to curb the influence of al Shabaab, the militant group that has seized control of large areas of south and central Somalia and has been blamed for attacks elsewhere in East Africa.
Both AQIM and al Shabaab are already on the official U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations, which makes them key targets in the U.S. anti-terrorism campaign.
The State Department has been under pressure to act against Boko Haram for months.
In January, Lisa Monaco, the Justice Department's top national security official, sent a letter to the State Department arguing the Nigerian group met the criteria for a "foreign terrorist" listing because it either engaged in terrorism that threatens the United States or had a capability or intent to do so.
But a group of academic experts on Africa sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last month urging her not to take the step, saying it could backfire by enhancing the group's reputation among potential recruits and other militants.
Nuland said the United States recognized that Boko Haram was a "loosely constructed" organization encompassing a number of viewpoints, and would encourage Abuja's efforts to broaden dialogue with groups in mainly Muslim northern Nigeria that have long complained of poor treatment by the central government.
The State Department also designated a leader of the Basque separatist group ETA, Aitzol Iriondo Yarza, currently detained in France pending extradition to Spain.
Reporting by Andrew Quinn; Editing by Peter Cooney