Muslim sect claims Nigeria church attacks; 25 dead

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

The Christmas Day attacks show the growing national ambition of the sect known as Boko Haram, which is responsible for at least 495 killings this year alone, according to an Associated Press count. The assaults come a year after a series of Christmas Eve bombings in Jos claimed by the militants left at least 32 dead and 74 wounded.

The first explosion on Sunday 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.

“We're trying to calm the situation,” Luguard said. “There are some angry people around trying to cause problems.”

In Jos, a second explosion struck near a Mountain of Fire and Miracles Church, government spokesman Pam Ayuba said. Ayuba said gunmen later opened fire on police guarding the area, killing one police officer. Two other locally made explosives were found in a nearby building and disarmed, he said.

“The military are here on ground and have taken control over the entire place,” Ayuba said.

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 sect has used the newspaper in the past to communicate with public.

The U.S. Embassy in Nigeria's capital of Abuja had issued a warning Friday 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 61 people, authorities said.

On Sunday, local police commissioner Tanko Lawan said several explosions had struck Damaturu, including a suicide car bombing. Lawan said that the blasts happened around noon, targeting the headquarters of Nigeria's secret police, the State Security Service, in the area.

The State Security Service later issued a statement saying the bomber targeted a senior military commander and killed three officers in the attack.

In the last year, Boko Haram has carried out increasingly bloody attacks in its campaign to implement strict Shariah law across Nigeria, a nation of more than 160 million people.

Boko Haram claimed responsibility for a Nov. 4 attack on Damaturu, Yobe state's capital, that killed more than 100 people. The group also claimed the Aug. 24 suicide car bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Nigeria's capital that killed 24 people and wounded 116 others.

The sect came to national prominence in 2009, when its members rioted and burned police stations near its base of Maiduguri, a dusty northeastern city on the cusp of the Sahara Desert. Nigeria's military violently put down the attack, crushing the sect's mosque into shards as its leader was arrested and died in police custody. About 700 people died during the violence.

While initially targeting enemies via hit-and-run assassinations from the back of motorbikes after the 2009 riot, violence by Boko Haram now has a new sophistication and apparent planning that includes high-profile attacks with greater casualties.

Boko Haram has splintered into three factions, with one wing increasingly willing to kill as it maintains contact with terror groups in North Africa and Somalia, diplomats and security sources say.

Sect members are scattered throughout northern Nigeria and nearby Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

___

Associated Press writer Bashir Adigun in Abuja, Nigeria and Njadvara Musa in Maiduguri, Nigeria contributed to this report. Jon Gambrell reported from Lagos, Nigeria and can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.

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