BENIN CITY, Nigeria - A series of apparently coordinated bombings struck three churches during Christmas services across Nigeria yesterday, killing at least 39 people and solidifying a recent escalation in violence by a radical Muslim sect.
At least five bombings were reported, including three at churches and one at a state security building. The worst appeared to be at a packed Catholic church just outside the capital, Abuja, where a bomb tore through the building and killed worshipers leaving a morning Mass.
The Associated Press reported that the Abuja attack killed 35 people and wounded 52, according to Slaku Luguard, a coordinator with Nigeria’s National Emergency Management Agency. The other deaths occurred in attacks in Jos and Damaturu.
Rescue workers struggling to cope with the chaos in Abuja faced a shortage of ambulances for the dozens of wounded and an enraged crowd that initially blocked them from entering the church until soldiers arrived to restore order.
The militant Islamist sect Boko Haram, which seeks to impose Islamic law across the country, claimed responsibility for several of the bombings and was suspected in others.
The group also calls for the release of imprisoned members in the north, where mass unemployment and poverty have fueled social discontent. It appears to have the tacit support of many Nigerians, who see it as a direct challenge to a political elite widely seen as corrupt, analysts say.
Coming after several days of gun battles last week in which more than 60 people were killed and a wave of attacks in November that killed more than 100, the Christmas bombings were clearly intended to symbolically announce the group’s aims in a country whose 150 million people are about half Muslim and 40 percent Christian. The same group carried out a series of Christmas Eve bombings last year.
But the sect has broadened its targets from its base in the predominantly Muslim northeast, alarming Western intelligence agencies with the suicide car bombing of the UN headquarters in Abuja in August that killed 24 people.
The first explosion yesterday struck St. Theresa Catholic Church in Madalla, about 25 miles northwest of Abuja, which was filled for the Christmas service.
A parishioner, Timothy Onyekwere, told Reuters that he was in the church with his family when the bomb exploded. “I just ran out,’’ he said. “Now I don’t even know where my children or my wife are.’’
The emergency management agency said it initially did not have enough ambulances available to ferry the wounded to hospitals, and angry crowds gathered at the site impeded the rescue efforts.
A Boko Haram spokesman, identified as Abu Qaqa, claimed responsibility for the attacks in statements to the local media.
The White House condemned what it called “this senseless violence and tragic loss of life on Christmas Day,’’ and in a statement offered to assist Nigerian officials “in bringing those responsible to justice.’’
Hours after the first explosion, a second struck near the Mountain of Fire and Miracles Church in Jos, which lies on the border of the mostly Muslim north and the Christian south. There were no direct casualties from the bomb, but a government spokesman, Pam Ayuba, told the AP that gunmen later opened fire on police officers guarding the area, killing one of them.
Two other bombs were found in a nearby building and disarmed, he said. “The military are here on ground and have taken control over the entire place,’’ he said.
Jos has been the scene of numerous sectarian attacks that have killed thousands of people in recent years.
News agencies reported at least three other explosions, two in the city of Damaturu and another at a church in Gadaka.
A suicide bomber attacked the Yobe state headquarters of Nigeria’s secret police in Damaturu, killing three, the police said. The bomber tried to attack the convoy of a battalion commander but was stopped by guards.
A police spokeswoman said the agency had been carrying out an operation against members of Boko Haram, whose name translates roughly as “Western education is sacrilege.’’
In a separate attack on a church in Gadaka, just outside of Damaturu, the night before, the cars of worshipers were set on fire while their owners were inside the church, The Sunday Trust, a northern Nigerian newspaper, reported. There were no casualties in that attack.
Damaturu was the scene of heavy fighting between Boko Haram and Nigerian security forces on Thursday and Friday. The army said it killed more than 50 members of the sect, and that three of its soldiers were killed.