Christmas attacks - fear grips Nigeria
Abuja - Fear gripped Nigeria on Monday after a wave of Christmas bombings blamed on Islamists killed at least 40, including worshippers who were left begging for mercy and burning to death as they exited a church.
Hundreds of residents sought to flee the violence-torn city of Damaturu on Monday fearing further attacks and clashes between Islamists and police, while some 30 Christian shops were burnt in the nearby city of Potiskum late on Sunday.
Nigeria has seen scores of attacks claimed by Islamist group Boko Haram, but some analysts said the bombings marked a dangerous escalation in a country divided between a mainly Muslim north and predominantly Christian south.
The government in Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation and its largest oil producer, blamed Islamist sect Boko Haram for three attacks on Sunday.
They included bomb explosions at two churches - the deadliest as Christmas mass ended near the capital Abuja - and a suicide attack in the northeast.
A third church was targeted in the northeast on Christmas Eve, but no one was reported killed. Residents reported another explosion near a church in the northeastern city of Maiduguri late on Sunday, but an army spokesperson denied it.
The attack at St Theresa Catholic Church in Madalla outside Abuja killed at least 35 and left a gruesome scene, with rescuers picking up body parts and putting them in plastic bags while emergency workers pleaded for ambulances.
It struck as the service was ending and worshippers were filing out of the church.
Burnt in cars
Some of the wounded, including one man whose entrails protruded from his body, ran toward a priest for final blessings. Some burnt in their cars as they sought to leave.
The attacks drew widespread condemnation, including from the Vatican, UN chief Ban Ki-moon, the United States and Britain.
"I wish to express my solidarity with those who have been hit by this absurd act," Pope Benedict XVI told a crowd gathered for his Angelus prayer, adding that he was "deeply saddened" by the attacks.
Authorities pledged to bring the attackers to justice, but the government has so far been unable to stop the Islamists, whose attacks have grown increasingly sophisticated and deadly.
President Goodluck Jonathan condemned the violence and his national security adviser called it "unnecessary blood-letting by a group whose objectives are not in consonance with any genuine religious tenants."
While the government blamed Boko Haram and a purported spokesperson for the sect claimed responsibility for the violence, conflicting accounts emerged.
A spokesperson for police in Niger state, where Madalla is located, said on Monday that authorities had not yet determined who was behind the attack.
"We are looking beyond Boko Haram because other people bent on destabilising the government might be doing these things in the name of Boko Haram," said Richard Oguche.
Describing the bombing, National Security Adviser Owoye Azazi said attackers threw improvised explosive devices from a moving vehicle in Madalla, adding that "two of the criminals had been apprehended, caught in action".
Nowhere to stay
Oguche said no one was arrested and the blast occurred after a minibus pulled up near the church. He added that three police officers were among those killed.
In the central city of Jos, a church was targeted and a policeman was killed in a resulting shoot-out.
A suicide blast also occurred in the restive northeastern city of Damaturu when the bomber sought to ram into a military convoy in front of a secret police office, killing himself and three security agents.
In Damaturu on Monday, hundreds of residents sought to flee, lining up at taxi and bus stands amid momentary calm.
"I have nowhere to stay," said a 42-year-old trader with his wife and three young children as he waited along the roadside.
"The situation in the city is frightening. You never can tell where will be the next target. My house was burnt in the attacks."
In the nearby city of Potiskum, residents and a police source said about 30 Christian shops burned on Sunday night, while a supermarket and the home of a local Christian leader were also set ablaze.
Some worried the attacks could set off a new round of sectarian clashes in Nigeria.
"The attack on churches is to nationalise the crisis," said Shehu Sani, a rights activist based in Nigeria's north.
"It will instigate hitherto neutral people into the crisis. Christians may want to take revenge on Muslims and this is dangerous for the country."
There has been intense speculation over whether Boko Haram has links with outside extremist groups, including al-Qaeda's north African branch.