Blasts shake Nigeria on Christmas Mass

Blasts shake Nigeria on Christmas Mass

LAGOS, Nigeria
An explosion ripped through a Catholic church during Christmas Mass near Nigeria’s capital yesterday, killing at least 25 people, officials said. A radical Muslim sect, Boko Haram, waging a sectarian fight claimed the attack and another bombing in the restive city of Jos, as explosions also struck the nation’s northeast.

The assaults came after gun battles between Nigerian security forces and an Islamist sect killed at least 68 people in two days of fighting in northern Nigeria. The first explosion struck St. Theresa Catholic Church in Madalla, a town in Niger state close to the capital, Abuja, authorities said. Rescue workers recovered at least 25 bodies from the church and officials continued to tally those wounded in various hospitals, said Slaku Luguard, a coordinator with Nigeria’s National Emergency Management Agency.

His agency already has acknowledged it didn’t have enough ambulances immediately on hand to help the wounded. Luguard also said an angry crowd that gathered at the blast site hampered rescue efforts as they refused to allow workers inside. The city of Jos is located on the dividing line between Nigeria’s predominantly Christian south and Muslim north. Thousands have died in communal clashes there over the last decade.

After the bombings, a Boko Haram spokesman using the nom de guerre Abul-Qaqa claimed responsibility for the attacks in an interview with The Daily Trust, the newspaper of record across Nigeria’s Muslim north. The U.S. Embassy in Nigeria’s capital of Abuja had issued a warning Dec. 23 to citizens to be “particularly vigilant” around churches, large crowds and areas where foreigners congregate.

Several days of fighting in and around the northeastern city of Damaturu between the sect and security forces already had killed at least 68 people, authorities said. Yesterday, local police commissioner Tanko Lawan said two explosions struck Damaturu, including a blast near government offices. He declined to comment further, saying police had begun an operation to attack suspected Boko Haram sect members.

Explosions and gunfire began Dec. 22 in the cities of Damaturu, Maiduguri and Potiskum in the country’s northeast, where most of the violence blamed on Boko Haram has occurred, and continued into Dec. 23 in some areas. Soldiers in trucks and armored vehicles arrived in Damaturu on Dec. 23 and gave residents of the neighborhood where violence had broken out 30 minutes to leave. The neighborhood was later cordoned-off after residents fled. The chief of army staff, Lt. Gen. Azubuike Ihejirika, was quoted by local media as saying soldiers killed 59 Boko Haram members in Damaturu. Shootouts had taken place over the course of the two days. Others said the total death toll on all sides -- authorities, extremists and civilians -- could be as high as 100.

Compiled from AP and AFP stories by the Daily News staff.