YENAGOA, Nigeria, June 6 (Reuters) - Three Nigerian newspapers said the army seized parts of their Friday print-runs and stopped distribution vans across the country, with one accusing the military of a rare crackdown on the media.
The Ministry of Defence said soldiers had searched a number of vehicles for unspecified sensitive material that it had heard was being transported with the newsprint, but insisted it had no intention of stopping the newspapers themselves.
The Punch, a widely-read daily, reported on its website that distribution of its edition and other newspapers had been disrupted at Lagos airport and other hubs in moves "reminiscent of military dictatorship in the country".
Staff from The Nation and Leadership papers told Reuters some of their vans had also been halted without explanation.
Nigeria came out of years of military dictatorship in 1999 and is now widely-admired for its outspoken free press, with columnists and cartoonists regularly lambasting leading figures including President Goodluck Jonathan himself.
The army has faced particularly harsh criticism for its handling of a mounting Islamist insurgency in the northeast and its efforts to free more than 200 schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram militants.
Earlier this week the Defence Ministry issued a statement denying local media reports that some of its senior officers had been court-martialed on charges of backing the rebels.
Defence headquarters said the newspaper searches "followed intelligence report indicating movement of materials with grave security implications across the country using the channel of newsprint-related consignments," without going into further details.
The newspapers said on Friday they had been given no explanation for the stoppages. The Nation's edition led on suggestions from an unnamed source that the government might be ready to free detained insurgents in exchange for the adducted girls. (Reporting by Tife Owolabi; Writing by Andrew Heavens; Editing by Mark Heinrich)