KADUNA, Nigeria (AP) — A suicide bomber rammed an SUV loaded with explosives into a Catholic church holding Mass on Sunday in northern Nigeria, killing at least seven people and sparking reprisal violence that left another two dead outside the worship hall, witnesses said.
The attack happened in the Malali neighborhood of Kaduna, a city on the dividing line between Nigeria's largely Christian south and Muslim north where religious rioting has killed hundreds in recent years. Police and soldiers surrounded St. Rita Catholic church after the 9 a.m. attack, but angry Christian youths had already beaten to death two Muslims riding past on motorcycles, an Associated Press reporter at the scene said.
Authorities did not immediately offer a casualty figure, but the AP journalist saw the bodies of four worshippers lying on the floor of the church after the blast, surrounded by broken glass. The body of the suicide bomber had been blasted into nearby rubble. An official at a nearby military hospital said his facility received at least three other bodies from the attack.
Kaduna state police commissioner Olufemi Adenaike told journalists at the church that authorities had urged those living in the neighborhood, which has both Christians and Muslims, to return home and stay indoors to halt any further revenge attacks. Saidu Adamu, a spokesman for Kaduna state government, said the rest of the city was peaceful.
The blast likely injured others, though authorities declined to immediately offer any estimates.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, which comes as the Muslims in the nation are celebrating the Eid al-Adha holiday in Nigeria. In recent days, rumors have circulated that the radical Islamist sect known as Boko Haram, which is responsible for hundreds of killings this year alone, might try to launch an attack during the holiday. The sect has demanded the release of all its captive members and has called for strict Shariah law to be implemented across the entire country. However, the group, which speaks to journalists in telephone conference calls at times of its choosing, could not be immediately reached for comment.
The sect has used suicide car bombs against churches in the past, most noticeably a 2011 Christmas Day attack on a Catholic church in Madalla near Nigeria's capital. That attack and assaults elsewhere in the country killed at least 44 people. An unclaimed car bombing on Easter in Kaduna killed at least 38 people on a busy roadway after witnesses say it was turned away from a church.
After the April 2011 presidential election, protests in Kaduna over Christian Goodluck Jonathan winning quickly turned into ethnic and religious violence that saw hundreds killed in that state alone. On Oct. 14, gunmen armed with assault rifles attacked a rural Kaduna state village, killing at least 24 people, including worshippers leaving a mosque after prayers before dawn. Officials said the attack likely came from a criminal gang angry over the village killing some of their men. In another attack Sept. 30, gunmen detonated a bomb near an Islamic school in Zaria.
Three church bombings in June claimed by Boko Haram and retaliatory violence after the attacks in Kaduna killed at least 50 people.
Jon Gambrell reported from Lagos, Nigeria, and can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP .