KADUNA - A Nigerian Muslim cleric who openly criticized Islamist sect Boko Haram has been killed in Zaria, hundreds of miles from where the military is fighting insurgents, police said on Monday.

Gunmen opened fire on Sheik Adam Albani's car on Saturday evening as he drove home from preaching in a mosque, also killing his wife and young son, police spokesman Aminu Lawan said.

Western governments see prominent leaders like Sheik Albani playing a role in the long-term fight against Boko Haram and other al-Qaida-linked groups, in a deeply religious country of 170 million people.

The assassination of Sheik Albani in Zaria, the capital of Kaduna state in a central northern region, could discourage others from speaking out against Boko Haram, whose primary recruiting pool is the millions of uneducated youths in the north of Nigeria.

President Goodluck Jonathan is struggling to end a four-and-a-half year insurgency by Boko Haram but a military push begun in May last year has largely confined bloodshed to the country's remote northeast corner, where the group originates and has most support.

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