Kano - Nigeria's top Islamic leader on Monday accused the military of fleeing when Boko Haram attacks and terrorising civilians, in the harshest ever criticism from the key cleric, as violence persisted in the northeast.
A statement from the country's top Muslim body, the JNI, described the military's handling of the five-year Islamist uprising as "unfortunate, worrisome and embarrassing".
The JNI speaks for Nigeria's top cleric, the Sultan of Sokoto Muhammad Sa'ad Abubakar, and included the harshest ever-criticism of the military from a key Islamic leader.
"Soldiers take to their heels and abandon their bases, arms, ammunition and other military hardware on the approach of the insurgents!" the statement said.
Also read: Students demand end to Boko Haram killings
"Nigerian Security Forces only surface after the deadly attacks and terrorise an already terrorised people by installing road blocks and searching homes," it added.
The condemnation came after similar remarks last week from Nigeria's number two Islamic cleric, the Emir of Kano, and will likely infuriate President Goodluck Jonathan's government, which expects traditional monarchs to abstain from political commentary.
In a speech released at the weekend, defence spokesman Chris Olukolade meanwhile accused the media and other "campaigners" of distorting the military effort against Boko Haram, tarnishing Nigeria's global image and hurting troop morale.Bodies lying dead
Another attack occurred Monday, when suspected Boko Haram gunmen entered a market in the northeast town of Damasak at about 11:00 am (1000 GMT) and opened fire on unarmed traders, a military officer and a local government official told AFP.
The militants were disguised as traders, carrying containers they claimed were full of goods for sale but which in fact were stuffed with AK-47 rifles, the official, Mohammed Damasak, said.
The gunmen "inflicted horror", he said, adding: "Many traders escaped with bullet wounds while many are lying dead at the market."
A military officer with direct knowledge of the attack but who requested anonymity said soldiers had deployed to the market and were battling the militants "for control of the town".
Damasak, in northeast Borno state, is close to the Niger border, a remote region with a poor telephone network.
It was not immediately possible to establish a death toll or whether the Islamists had chased out the military.
Boko Haram is believed to have taken over more than two dozen towns in recent weeks as part of a campaign to establish a strict Islamic state in the northeast.Government should 'wake up'
While there has been no official response to the tough JNI statement, it will likely ratchet up tensions ahead of Nigeria's general elections in February.
Also read: Our government protects Boko Haram terrorists from us
The main opposition All Progressives Congress is widely expected to nominate a candidate from the mainly Muslim north against Jonathan, who is a southern Christian, and Nigeria's religious divide will be a key factor in the vote.
The JNI, speaking on behalf the Sultan, condemned the recent Boko Haram violence while urging the government "with the loudest voice, to wake up to its fundamental and obligatory responsibility of protecting lives".
It accused the government of "wallowing in diatribe" against a growing number of critics who say the military response to Boko Haram's five-year uprising has been woefully inadequate.Stop 'ridiculing' our nation
Military spokesman Olukolade said Nigeria's management of the Islamist conflict had been hugely distorted by the media and "campaigners" who have concealed their political bias against Jonathan.
The attack on so-called campaigners was a reference to the Bring Back Our Girls protesters carrying out daily marches to demand the release of the 219 schoolgirls held hostage by Boko Haram since mid-April.
The local media valued "reporting war" above "the nation's image or collective destiny", he said in a speech in the US city of Atlanta.
The foreign press had shown "disdain for objective reportage" and inflated claims of rights abuses by Nigerian troops, he added.