By Ibrahim Mshelizza
MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (Reuters) - Suspected Islamist gunmen fired on residents of a market town in northeast Nigeria, killing 18 in one of their deadliest attacks for several weeks, a local government official said on Tuesday.
The attack late on Monday apparently targeted local hunters in Damboa who sell bush meat from animals such as monkeys and pigs, which strict Muslims are forbidden to eat, the local government leader told journalists.
"Gunmen suspected to be members of BH (Islamist sect Boko Haram) came to the town market and shot dead 13 local hunters on the spot while five others died from their injuries at the hospital," Alhaji Abba Ahmed said. "They came to the market in a Volkswagen Golf car, carried out the operation and left."
Northern Nigeria has suffered a surge in violence in the past week as Boko Haram intensifies operations. Damboa is in the remote northeast, the sect's heartland near the borders with Niger, Cameroon and Chad.
Boko Haram's long-bearded members practice a strict Wahhabist version of Islam that regards anyone who disagrees with it as infidels.
Its fighters say they want to carve an Islamic state out of Nigeria, a country of 170 million people split roughly evenly between Christians and Muslims. The insurgency is seen as the top security threat to Africa's leading energy producer.
Militants have killed several hundred people in the past three years in a campaign to impose sharia (Islamic law) on Nigeria. Their targets include the security forces and churches, although they have killed more Muslims than Christians.
Suspected Islamist gunmen fired on the convoy of one of Nigeria's most senior Islamic leaders in the northern city of Kano on Saturday, killing at least four people.
Nigeria plans to deploy around 1,200 troops as part of a West African intervention force to combat jihadist militants occupying the north of Mali, and officials fear Nigeria's involvement could further inflame its own Islamist insurgency. An Islamist group known as Ansaru, which has been blamed for abducting Westerners, claimed responsibility for an attack on Nigerian troops heading to Mali on Sunday that killed two officers.
President Goodluck Jonathan told Reuters in Geneva on Tuesday that tackling global jihadists is in Nigeria's interest because of the links between its Islamists and those in the desert states to the north of it, like Mali.
(Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Mark Heinrich)