ABUJA (AFP) - Nigerian police have banned protests in the capital Abuja by supporters of the more than 200 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram militants as the activists vowed to challenge the "illegal" move.
Noisy street demonstrations in Abuja have become a regular feature of the campaign to put pressure on the government and keep the issue in the public eye seven weeks after the girls were abducted from a school in northern Nigeria on April 14.
Federal Capital Territory (FCT) police spokesman Altine Daniel confirmed the ban in a text message, saying the decision was taken "because of security reasons".
Protest organisers questioned the legitimacy of the move and eyed a possible political motive, but police chief Joseph Mbu said the ban was imposed because of the threat of infiltration from "dangerous elements".
"There is no basis for and no power of FCT Commissioner of Police to ban peaceful assembly of any group of persons in... the city. None@ ALL," said protest leader Oby Ezekwesili on Twitter.
"The decision to ban the protest is insane. We are going to court as soon as possible to challenge the ban," said the group's lawyer, Femi Falana, adding that permits were not required for peaceful protests.
Bring Back Our Girls spokesman Rotimi Olawale said that the protesters were "unperturbed" and would meet again in the capital on Tuesday. "We have been peaceful in our protest. We don't obstruct traffic or constitute ourselves to a public menace," he added.
The demonstrations grew out of a social media campaign #BringBackOurGirls, which attracted worldwide support from ordinary people to US First Lady Michelle Obama and Pope Francis. Copycat demonstrations have also been held around the globe.
Families and supporters of the missing girls were critical of Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan's response to the abduction, accusing him of being slow to react and indifferent to their plight.
The head of the world's top Islamic body Iyad Ameen Madani branded the violence carried out by Boko Haram "criminal acts that have nothing to do with Islam, Islamic teachings, the religion and history of Islam, the culture and civilisation of Islam".
Speaking to reporters after talks with Mr Jonathan he added, "we should identify them for what they are, a terrorist group".
"We offered anything that the OIC could do in terms of expressing its support and willingness to be actively involved in facing up to this terrorist group," the secretary general of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation added.
In the weeks after the April 14 abduction, Nigeria has been forced to accept foreign help, including from the United States, to try to find the girls. The protests meanwhile have grown to involve activists and campaign groups, who have sought meetings with senior figures in Mr Jonathan's administration, including the president himself. But on Wednesday last week, the high-profile marches descended into violence after scores of young men attacked women protesters, throwing chairs, bottles and stones.
Some of the men were carrying posters in support of Mr Jonathan, protest leaders said, although there was no immediate evidence connecting the gang to the head of state or his ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
Mr Mbu said in a statement that the emergence of a second group of protesters - Release Our Girls - was "posing a serious security threat" to nearby residents.
"As the FCT Police boss I cannot fold my hands and watch this lawlessness," he said. "Information reaching us is that too soon dangerous elements will join the groups under the guise of protest and detonate explosive(s) aimed at embarrassing the government.
"Accordingly protests on the Chibok girls is hereby banned with immediate effect." Information Minister Labaran Maku claimed after last Wednesday's violence that the majority of the protesters were members of the main opposition All Progressives Congress (APC), which is looking to unseat the PDP in next year's general election.
Banners of the smaller opposition Labour Party have been seen on previous marches, according to AFP reporters. Ms Ezekwesili, however, is a former education minister under ex-president Olusegun Obasanjo - Jonathan's mentor - and a regular presence at the demonstrations.
The former World Bank executive claimed that the FCT police chief did nothing to prevent last week's violence and said the ban indicated that Nigeria's government wants to deflect attention from itself. "Banning protests in Abuja further underlines our govts not wanting to take responsibility," she tweeted.
Mr Mbu was recently transferred from Rivers state in the southern Niger Delta region to the capital, amid accusations that he was doing the presidency's bidding - charges he has denied. The Rivers state governor Rotimi Amaechi, who defected from the PDP to the APC last year, accused the police chief of targeting opposition rallies after police fired live bullets and tear gas at APC members.
Mr Mbu said at the time that teargas was used only because organisers did not have an official permit to demonstrate.