Terror comes to Nigeria with 39 killed in church bomb attacks

Militant Islamist group seeking to impose sharia law on country claims responsibility

Nigeria was left to count its dead on Christmas day as a series of bomb blasts ripped through church gatherings around the country in attacks claimed by a militant Islamic sect.

Boko Haram – an extremist group from Nigeria's majority Muslim northeast – said it had carried out the bombings at the end of a year during which it has escalated its campaign to impose Sharia across the country.

At least 39 people died as bombs went off in the capital Abuja and the city of Jos, while churches and security forces were targeted in three other towns. Most of the deaths came at St Theresa's Church in the satellite town of Madalla near Abuja where 1,000 people had gathered for a Christmas service. Churchgoers described scenes of chaos and carnage after a blast powerful enough to destroy sections of the roof and badly damage nearby buildings went off.

"We were in the church with my family when we heard the explosion. I ran out," Timothy Onyekwere told Reuters. "I don't know where my children or my wife are. I don't know how many were killed, but there were many dead."

Church officials said that 35 bodies had been counted by mid-afternoon. Another bomb was detonated in the central city of Jos, where 80 people were killed in similar attacks last Christmas. A policeman was killed in gunfire which followed the blasts. Three more people were reported dead in blasts in the north-eastern city of Damaturu, where fighting between security forces and the sect already had killed at least 61 people in recent days.

A Boko Haram spokesman claimed responsibility for the attacks in an interview with a local newspaper.

Religious tensions along Nigeria's middle belt, where the country's predominantly Christian south meets the traditionally Muslim north, have flared up regularly since large-scale rioting left thousands dead in 2000. In the last two years a sect which bases itself loosely on Afghanistan's Taliban has become more active, carrying out increasingly sophisticated attacks outside the northern Nigerian states of Yobe, Kano, Bauchi, Borno and Kaduna.

Boko Haram came to international prominence in July 2009 when its leader died in police custody and the sect's mosque was flattened by security services, prompting supporters to riot and burn police stations. The violence that swept the city of Maiduguri on the edge of the Sahara in north-eastern Nigeria left 700 people dead.

Boko Haram's campaign has changed the nature of confessional violence in Africa's most populous nation. Abject poverty and neglect of Nigeria's northeast by the corrupt central government has made the area a breeding ground for Islamic extremists. Founded in 2002, the sect initially focused on assassinations of local officials. These would often be accompanied by bloody crackdowns by the authorities.

Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from the oil-producing Niger Delta in the south, has vowed to break Boko Haram, but the sect has succeeded in killing nearly 500 people this year. The government has arrested several high-profile politicians from the north for alleged links to the group and had succeeded in seizing arms and explosives intended for attacks.

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