MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (Reuters) - Nigerian troops shot dead at least 30 people during raids in the northeast city of Maiduguri, bastion of the radical Islamist sect Boko Haram, witnesses and hospital staff said on Friday.
Boko Haram says it wants to create an Islamic state in Nigeria and its fighters have killed hundreds in bomb and gun attacks targeting security forces, politicians and civilians since launching an uprising in 2009. The sect has become the top security threat to Africa's biggest energy-producing state.
Three witnesses told Reuters that soldiers from the Joint Task Force (JTF) raided several neighborhoods in Maiduguri late on Thursday and arrested or shot dead dozens of people.
"More than 30 bodies were brought in by the JTF yesterday and most of them were young men," a nurse at one Maiduguri hospital Yagana Bukar told Reuters. The military spokesman in Maiduguri did not respond to requests for comment.
"Yesterday around the Gambaru area, soldiers raided places with an insider who pointed to suspected terrorists and they just killed some of them on the spot and others were taken away," a civil servant who saw the attacks told Reuters, asking not to be named. He said he saw more than 40 dead bodies.
A recent military crackdown has reduced the more deadly Boko Haram attacks seen early this year, although violence in Maiduguri and the rest of northeast Borno state is still an almost daily occurrence.
Western governments are concerned about Boko Haram linking up with other militant groups in the region, including al Qaeda's north African wing.
Amnesty International said in a report on Thursday that the JTF had committed human rights abuses in its fight against Boko Haram that were fuelling the insurgency.
The report said the JTF had carried out executions in the streets and tortured people without bringing any charges against them. The military said the report was biased and the police said they would investigate the matter.
A man claiming to be a senior member of Boko Haram told journalists by phone on Thursday that the group was willing to hold talks with the government under certain conditions, although there were doubts over what links he has with the group.
Several efforts at dialogue have failed and Boko Haram's self-proclaimed leader Abubakar Shekau has said in videos posted online that the group is not interested in talks with the government. Shekau is on the U.S. "foreign terrorist" list.
The man calling himself Abu Mohammed Ibn Abdulazeez told reporters in Maiduguri that the sect would cease fire if the current governor of Borno was arrested, the group's mosque was rebuilt, they were compensated for all their losses and all of the sect's imprisoned members were released.
He did not mention the implementation of sharia law, a key demand of Shekau's in the past.
Abdulazeez proposed that Muhammadu Buhari, President Goodluck Jonathan's main opponent in 2010 elections, be part of a negotiation team which would meet in Saudi Arabia for talks.
He spoke in English, unlike previous communications from spokesman Abu Qaqa and videos from Shekau, who both spoke in Hausa and Arabic. Shekau said in September that Qaqa had been arrested and may now be dead. Qaqa used to communicate with groups of journalists in Maiduguri by telephone.
"If he is a genuine Boko Haram person then it is a positive development," Borno government spokesman Inuwa Bwala told Reuters.
(Additional reporting by Isaac Abrak in Kaduna; Writing by Joe Brock; Editing by Myra MacDonald)