An early morning attack on a Christian church service in northern Nigeria left at least seven people dead according to an official, but eyewitnesses say the toll was much higher. The attack follows a string of violent incidents against Christians in the predominantly Muslim north.
Gunmen on motorcycles stormed Bayero University in the city of Kano Sunday morning during a Catholic mass held in the school's theater hall. The unidentified assailants threw improvised explosive devices as they traveled from the gates to the theater, and opened fire as people fled.
University spokesperson Alhaji Mustapha Zahradeen said seven people were killed. Eyewitness, however, said rescue operators have removed at least 18 dead bodies.
Security officials suspect Boko Haram, an Islamist insurgent outfit, carried out the attack. The group, whose name means "Western education is a sin," issued a statement last month warning that they will attack schools. Boko Haram has been blamed for killing more than 1,000 people since 2009 in its bid to overthrow Nigeria's secular government and establish Islamic sharia law nationwide.
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Nigeria's political system tries to strike a balance between the Muslim north and Christian south. The use of religiously-targeted violence by Boko Haram, a group based in the north, is posing a challenge to the presidency of Goodluck Jonathan, a southern Christian. In response, Mr. Jonathan has dispatched security forces, but sent mixed signals on whether his government would talk with the insurgents.
"Those who are saying we should dialogue are correct; those who are saying we should not dialogue are also correct," Jonathan told reporters Saturday after touring the bombed office of ThisDay Newspapers in Abuja.
Suleiman Ramat, a human rights activist in Kano, says to end the violence the government needs to act more vigorously, including on efforts to reconcile with the insurgents.
"The attack on Christians is barbaric and it must stop because innocent people are always at [the] losing end," he says.
Nigerian security forces have taken some counterinsurgency steps. Security forces arrested the group's leader Muhammad Yusuf, who was then killed in custody in 2009. In Kano last week, a joint military task force raided a suspected Boko Haram bomb factory. Earlier this month, security forces praised local residents in a Muslim neighborhood of Kano who apprehended two Boko Haram fighters before they could cause mayhem.
But a steady string of attacks by Boko Haram against churches, government installations, and newspapers continue, leading to calls for the government to get more serious about responding to the group.
The spokesman of the Joint Military Task Force, Lt. Ikedichi Iweha, said today's attack was highly sophisticated and cruel. By the time his men arrived on the scene, the gunmen had fled the area.
Meanwhile, the country's National Emergency Management Agency said that it received reports of the attacks but had no local office nearby with which to respond. Instead, they helped mobilize first responders and volunteers, who were then refused access to the scene by security forces.
Among the victims of the attack are chemistry professor Jerome Ayodele and Andrew Leo of the Library Science department.
The attack at Bayero University comes just two days after gunshots and blasts at Gombe State University in northeastern Nigeria. There were no casualties in that attack, which destroyed an administrative building.