ABUJA (Reuters) - The United States warned its citizens in Nigeria on Wednesday that Islamist militant group Boko Haram might be planning attacks on the capital Abuja - but the Nigerian government dismissed the alert saying it would create “undue panic.”
Boko Haram, which wants sharia (Islamic law) more widely applied across Africa’s most populous nation, has killed hundreds in gun and bomb attacks this year.
“The U.S. Embassy has received information that Boko Haram may be planning attacks in Abuja, Nigeria, including against hotels frequently visited by Westerners,” read a message on the embassy’s website on Wednesday.
“The Nigerian government is aware of the threat and is actively implementing security measures,” the message added.
U.S. authorities issued a similar warning in November, naming the Hilton, Sheraton and Nicon Luxury hotels as possible Boko Haram targets in Abuja, but later retracted the alert.
Occupancy at those hotels dipped after that warning. The embassy did not name specific targets on Wednesday.
Information Minister Labaran Maku dismissed the warning, saying the government had stepped up security measures, especially around hotels, since last year.
“These statements that are often issued create undue panic among the general public,” he told journalists at the presidential villa in Abuja.
“I appeal to foreign embassies ... if they have any doubt at all about the preparedness of our agencies to secure public places, I think it would be wise to communicate that to us,” he added.
In Washington, the State Department said that it was obligated to post warnings of credible threats.
“When we deem a threat to U.S. citizen safety or security to be specific, credible and non-counterable, we do issue these kinds of emergency messages,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.
Boko Haram usually targets police, authority figures and churches in the mostly Muslim north, although there has been a handful of deadly attacks in and around Abuja, which is home to ministries and foreign embassies.
The group claimed responsibility for bomb attacks on the police headquarters and the U.N. base in Nigeria, both in Abuja last year.
The police said they killed one Boko Haram member and arrested 13 others on Tuesday during a crackdown in the group’s home base of Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state in the remote northeast which borders Chad, Cameroon and Niger.
Boko Haram shot dead two people on Monday in Maiduguri, where it has carried out almost daily attacks in recent months.
President Goodluck Jonathan, who is a Christian from the southern oil-producing Niger Delta, has been criticized by Nigerians and foreign diplomats for not getting a grip on violence in the north.
A bomb near a church in northern city Kaduna on Easter Sunday killed more than 30 people but Jonathan was on holiday in Abuja at the time and his team declined to make any comment.
Boko Haram’s purported leader, Abubakar Shekau, has appeared in some al Qaeda-style videos on the internet this year but has made only vague threats and no clear demands.
He has said his main objective is to spread Islamic law, free imprisoned members of the group and kill “infidels” who work against it, whether Christian or Muslim.
Security experts believe Shekau is the leader of the main faction of the movement based in Maiduguri.
There are several factions within Boko Haram spread across the north and some have loose ties with Islamist groups outside the country, including al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, security experts and Western diplomats say.
Additional reporting by Ibrahim Mshelizza in Maiduguri and Felix Onuah in Abuja; Editing by Tim Cocks and Andrew Heavens; Desking by Cynthia Osterman