Al Qaeda suspects arrested in Nigeria -police

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LAGOS, Nov 12 (Reuters) A group of Islamist militants with suspected links to al Qaeda have been arrested in three states in northern Nigeria and explosives were seized from them, a spokesman for the State Security Services (SSS) said today.

The US embassy warned in September that Nigeria, Africa's top oil producer, was at risk of ''terrorist attack'', and Osama bin Laden once named the country as ripe for jihad, but Nigeria has yet to see any major attack in the style of al Qaeda.

''The service arrested some persons in Kaduna, Kano and Yobe states. Explosive-making devices were found,'' said SSS spokesman Ado Muazu. He could not say how many people were detained.

''Investigations have revealed that the suspects have links with the al Qaeda network and the Nigerian Taliban,'' he said.

He was referring to a group of radical Islamists who launched a brief spate of attacks in late 2003 on police stations and government offices in the predominantly Muslim northeast, prompting a fierce security crackdown. The group has no known connection to the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Nigerian police and the secretive SSS have made sporadic arrests of suspected jihadists for some years and trials have been launched, but there has been no conviction and no conclusive evidence of al Qaeda's presence in Nigeria has been made public.

This Day newspaper published a photograph of three bags of fertiliser and a few sticks of dynamite which it said were seized from the detained group. Muazu said the photograph was genuine and further investigations were under way.

Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, is divided about equally between Christians and Muslims. The two communities usually live side by side peacefully but there are occasional outbreaks of religious violence.

Tensions worsened in the northern part of the country after 12 state governments introduced a stricter enforcement of sharia law in 2000, alienating sizeable Christian minorities. Thousands were killed in sporadic riots.

Against this backdrop, some Western diplomats and analysts have expressed concerns that Nigeria could become a target for militant Islamists. The US embassy said in an official warning to American residents of Nigeria in September that unspecified targets for attacks included Western interests.

REUTERS PD RK1448

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