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Doubts over Boko Haram link to Nigeria hostage deaths

Residents do not claim to know who did it, but they say they are sure of who did not, despite the government’s version of events:…

Residents do not claim to know who did it, but they say they are sure of who did not, despite the government’s version of events: Islamist group Boko Haram.

“It is just kidnappers,” Umar Bello, the local chief of the neighbourhood where the killings occurred, said after shaking his head ‘no’ to the question of whether Boko Haram was responsible.

“Their major priority is money, and if they don’t get the money, they have nothing to lose.”

It is an opinion heard frequently in Sokoto, the home of Nigeria’s supreme Muslim spiritual leader and a city near the Sahara desert where residents in dirt-stained caftans and headwraps roam the roads through clouds of sand.

Each of around a dozen residents who were asked whether Boko Haram was responsible all told AFP that they did not think so.

President Goodluck Jonathan has blamed the Islamist group, which has carried out scores of attacks elsewhere in Nigeria though it has not been known to commit kidnappings.

Kidnapped nearly a year ago, the two Europeans were killed Thursday amid a rescue operation jointly planned with British authorities and authorised by British Prime Minister David Cameron.

According to Jonathan, the two men, Franco Lamolinara, 48, and Chris McManus, 28, were murdered by their captors before they could be rescued.

An hours-long shootout involving a tank occurred after soldiers arrived at a house in a Sokoto neighbourhood, with residents reporting two kidnappers and a civilian also killed.

In the wake of the shootout, blood covered the floor of two bathrooms and was splattered along one of the walls, which were pockmarked with bullet holes.

As for Boko Haram itself, a purported spokesman for the group has denied it was to blame.

A number of theories have been advanced, including whether a splinter cell of Boko Haram was involved, with the Islamist group long considered to have various factions.

A security source offered an explanation that implicated the group by association, alleging that the mastermind was a man named Abu Muhammad who was affiliated with Al-Qaeda’s north African branch and Boko Haram.

The source said the kidnappings were aimed at collecting ransoms which could be used to finance Boko Haram activities, and that in return Abu Muhammad would be given security cover by the group to carry out further abductions.

Abu Muhammad was said to be arrested on Tuesday — two days before the raid — along with another suspect, and sources said authorities gained information from them on the location of the others.

A number of factors are out of the ordinary when compared to previous violence by Boko Haram, which has carried out increasingly sophisticated bombings and shootings, mostly in northeastern Nigeria.

The May 2011 kidnappings and Thursday’s killings took place in the country’s northwest, far from the group’s usual targets.

Boko Haram has also not been known to carry out kidnappings, and criminal groups are believed to have carried out violence in the past under the guise of the Islamist group.

Asked whether Boko Haram was behind it, a police official who did not want to be named said he did not think so. Informed afterward that the president had released a statement blaming the group, he backed off and said he did not have all the facts.

In August, AFP received a video showing the two hostages, who had been working for a construction firm at the time of their kidnapping, in which they said their kidnappers were from Al-Qaeda.

Al-Qaeda’s north African branch has previously claimed kidnappings in countries including Niger, which borders Sokoto, but never in Nigeria.

Kyari Mohammed, a Nigerian professor who has long studied Boko Haram, said the fact that the group has denied it causes him to doubt their involvement.

“They have disassociated themselves from it, and it is very unlike them to disassociate themselves from it if they are the ones who have killed them,” he said.

But others point out that the Islamists have continually widened their range of targets in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation roughly divided between a mainly Muslim north and predominately Christian south.

The group’s attacks include the suicide bombing of UN headquarters in the capital Abuja in August which killed at least 25, as well as a siege of Nigeria’s second-largest city of Kano in January that left 185 people dead.

Onah Ekhomu, a Nigerian security consultant, said he believed Boko Haram was responsible.

“The northwest is not an active zone of Boko Haram, but they have been trying to penetrate,” he said.

It is not a convincing argument for Sokoto residents.

Mu’Wuya S. Rafi, a 20-year-old chemistry student who lives near the site of the shootout, said he doubted the incident was linked to Boko Haram.

Speaking of the Islamists, he said, “they are fighting with the government.”

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