ABUJA (Reuters) - Nigeria’s secret service arrested the purported spokesman for Islamist militant sect Boko Haram Wednesday, a group that has claimed responsibility for a string of deadly bombings and gun attacks, a secret service source told Reuters.
A swat team stormed the dwelling of the man known as ‘Abu Qaqa’ in the northern city of Kaduna in the early hours of the morning and found him hiding under his bed, said the highly-placed source, who asked not to be named.
The past three months have seen a surge in violence by Boko Haram, a movement loosely modeled on Afghanistan’s Taliban which says it is fighting to install sharia law across Nigeria.
The arrest of a senior Boko Haram figure would be a coup for the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan which has been criticized for failing to curb the sect’s violent activities in the mainly Muslim north.
The reported arrest came two weeks after the prime suspect in a Christmas Day bombing on a church on the edge of Abuja escaped from police custody, prompting Jonathan to sack his police chief.
“We are still talking to him. Since ‘Abu Qaqa’ is a pseudonym for the Boko Haram spokesman, we want to be sure of who we have with us. But we have been on his trail for months now. He’s been changing locations and contacts,” the State Security Services (SSS) source said.
“He is fairly educated. He is from the Ibiza ethnic group, from Kogi state in north central Nigeria,” the SSS official added.
A spokeswoman for the SSS said she had no information on the incident. The police spokesman also declined to confirm it.
A man calling himself Abu Qaqa often appeared in local media after bomb and gun attacks to claim them for the group and justify the choice of target.
For a long time Abu Qaqa was the closest thing the sect had to a public face, before its purported leader Abubakar Shekau posted a video of himself last month on YouTube.
Abu Qaqa said Boko Haram carried out the Christmas Day bomb attack that killed 37 people.
He also claimed responsibility for a coordinated series of gun and bomb attacks two weeks ago in the second city of Kano that killed 186 in the group’s deadliest strike to date.
Nigeria conducted a mass burial Wednesday of 17 of the victims from the bomb attack on St Theresa church in Madalla, a satellite town of Abuja. The other 20 had already been buried.
Bishops in golden robes conducted a somber service for the Christmas bomb victims, while pall bearers in red polo shirts carried the 17 caskets.
There was a heavy security presence at the service and officials set up metal detectors at the doors to guard against a possible repeat attack by the sect on mourners, as happened on January 6 in the northeastern town of Mubi, in Adamawa state.
“We shall overcome. We shall see the end of these evil people,” President Jonathan said in a statement read out by Reverend Bala Msheila.
The targeting of Christians raised fears Boko Haram was trying to ignite a sectarian war. Abu Qaqa said the attacks were in revenge for an attack on Muslims in Nigeria’s volatile, religiously mixed middle belt during a Muslim holiday in November.
“We pray that those in charge of our security and safety will have the wisdom to know how best to tackle the problem on our hands and the courage to do what needs to be done,” Abuja’s Catholic Archbishop John Onayeikan said.
Attacks by Boko Haram continue, but in recent weeks it has renewed its focus on security targets. The Kano attack mostly hit police stations.
Writing and additional reporting by Tim Cocks in Lagos; Editing by Rosalind Russell and Andrew Heavens