By Habiba Salihu and Shabtai Gold
ABUJA, Nigeria — A series of attacks on churches in Nigeria during Christmas Day services killed at least 40 people, witnesses said Sunday, with local authorities blaming the carnage on Islamist militant group Boko Haram.
At least 35 bodies were pulled from the rubble of a bombed church in Madalla, near the capital Abuja, BBC reported. Rescue workers rushed to the scene, and security forces cordoned off the area.
The National Emergency Management Agency said that dozens of people were hospitalized in critical condition.
NEMA spokesman Yushau Shuiab said emergency service workers had lacked sufficient equipment, particularly ambulances, to handle the large number of casualties. Prior to the bombing, Madalla was not considered an area under direct threat of attack.
A second explosion and gunfire were heard near the Mountain of Fire and Miracles church in the restive central city of Jos, witnesses said, killing one police officer.
There were reports of further attacks in volatile north-eastern Nigeria, including one at a church in Gadaka in Yobe state.
Worshippers reported that Christians fled holiday services at many churches in Abuja, seeking safety.
President Goodluck Jonathan said Boko Haram would “end one day.”
Police Affairs Minister Caleb Olubumi said: “We will beef (up) security around places of worship to prevent reprisal attacks in the festive period.”
Authorities suspected that the attacks may have been coordinated. A person purporting to be a Boko Haram spokesman said the group claimed responsibility for attacks, but the information could not immediately be verified.
The first blast went off at the St Theresa Catholic Church in Madalla, a town about 20 kilometers outside Abuja. Nearby buildings were damaged in the large explosion.
Several bodies were severely mutilated, making identification difficult. A local Red Cross worker said some families had immediately buried their slain relatives, making it harder to track the death toll.
Ndubuisi Chukuemeka told dpa at the scene of the attack that his sister was killed in the blast.
“As we were coming out of the church, I forgot a Christmas card given to me, so I rushed back to pick it (up). Shortly after, I heard a bang, and that was it. All I saw was smoke and people screaming and running, then I saw my sister’s fabric (clothes) in shreds,” the grieving Chukuemeka recounted.
Another witness, Micheal Ogar, said the explosion took place just after a car was parked near the church. Police were investigating whether a car bomb might have been used. A crater was left in the street, and nearby cars and buildings were damaged.
The Vatican condemned the attack as a “manifestation of cruelty and a blind and absurd hatred, which has no respect for human life.”
In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney condemned “this senseless violence and tragic loss of life on Christmas Day.”
He offered condolences to Nigeria and the families of people slain in the attacks. “We have been in contact with Nigerian officials about what initially appear to be terrorist acts, and pledge to assist them in bringing those responsible to justice,” Carney said.
In Berlin, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle condemned the attacks in both Nigeria and Afghanistan, where 20 people died in a suicide bombing. “Even on Christmas Day, unfortunately, the world is not spared the cowardice and horrors of terrorism,” he said.
The evils of terrorism, violence and oppression must be strongly opposed by all, not only in Nigeria and Afghanistan but also in Syria, Belarus and elsewhere, he said.
Local officials demanded that the president convene a national security summit, as Christian protesters outside Abuja burned tires and shouted slogans, some against Muslims.
Security is heightened across Nigeria after dozens of people have been killed over the last three days in the northeast in clashes between government security forces and Boko Haram. Human rights groups said the death toll there could be more than 100 people. Up to 59 members of the Islamist group are believed to have been killed since Thursday, while civilians and security forces were also among the dead.