A marcher holds a banner during a protest about the kidnapping of girls in Nigeria, near the Nigerian High Commission in London. File picture: Kirsty Wigglesworth

Abuja -

Nigeria's military said on Monday that it had broken up a Boko Haram intelligence cell and arrested its leader, alleged to have taken part in the abduction of more than 200 teenage girls in April.

A defence headquarters statement said that troops have found a militants' “intelligence cell” headed by a businessman “who participated actively in the abduction of schoolgirls in Chibok”, in north-east Borno state last April 14.

Of the 276 girls abducted, 57 have been found while 219 are still missing.

The businessman identified as Babuji Ya'ari, who was also a member of a civilian youth group that worked along with the military, popularly known as Civilian JTF (Joint Task Force), allegedly used his position as a cover to work for the militants, it said.

“The arrest of the businessman who is known to deal in tricycles has also yielded some vital information and facilitated the arrest of other members of the terrorists' intelligence cell who are women,” the military said.

The statement accused the suspect of spying for the Islamists as well as spearheading the murder of Emir of Gwoza in Borno state a month ago.

He has been co-ordinating several deadly attacks in Maiduguri since 2011, including the attacks on customs and military locations in the town, a hotbed of the sect, it said.

There is no independent confirmation of the military claim.

Boko Haram Islamists are blamed for killing thousands since 2009, but the first half of this year has been the bloodiest stretch of the insurgency, with more than 2 000 people killed.

An attack on churches on Sunday near Chibok blamed on Boko Haram gunmen left 54 people dead, an official has said.

They hurled explosives into churches, torched buildings and fired on worshippers as they tried to flee, residents said. - Sapa-AFP