ABUJA - At least 25 people were killed when a bomb explosion rattled a Catholic Church in the outskirts of the Nigerian capital Abuja during a Christmas Mass on Sunday, December 25, amid deadly sectarian violence in the African country.
"In these three vehicles, there are 15 bodies," a Federal Road Safety official in a reflective jacket told Reuters on the scene outside a police cordon, gesturing at three ambulances.
On Sunday morning, the residents of the Madala suburb woke up at the sound of a huge explosion from the direction of the church.
The blast in St Theresa's Church blew out windows of at least one house nearby, a witness said.
"I heard the blast. My house shook," resident Tony Akpan said of the Madala Catholic church bomb.
"I came out to the front of the church to see what was happening. I counted 19 bodies myself, many of them mutilated, and five destroyed vehicles."
Another witness, Timothy Onyekwere, said: "We were in the church with my family when we heard the explosion.
I just ran out. Now I don't even know where my children or my wife are. I don't know how many were killed but there were many dead."
A radical Islamist group, Boko Haram, has claimed responsibility for Sunday's attack.
The radical group has been blamed for dozens of bombings and shootings in the north, and has claimed responsibility for two bombings in Abuja this year.
Last Christmas Eve, a series of bomb blasts in ethnically and religiously mixed central Nigeria killed 32 people, and other people died in attacks on two churches in the northeast of Africa's most populous nation.
Nigeria, one of the world's most religiously committed nations, is divided between a Muslim north and a Christian south.
Muslims and Christians, who constitute 55 and 40 percent of Nigeria's 140 million population respectively, have lived in peace for the most part.
But ethnic and religious tensions have bubbled for years, fuelled by decades of resentment between indigenous groups, mostly Christian or animist, who are vying for control of fertile farmlands with migrants and settlers from the Hausa-speaking Muslim north.
The tensions are rooted in decades of resentment between indigenous groups, mostly Christian or animist, who are vying for control of fertile farmlands and for economic and political power with mostly Muslim migrants and settlers from the north.
The bombing followed earlier estimates about casualties from attacks blamed on Boko Haram and a heavy military crackdown in North Nigeria.
"From reports I have been receiving from Damaturu, up to 100 people could have been killed," a senior police source in the region told AFP.
But Chidi Odinkalu, head of the Open Society Justice Initiative, gave a figure of 69 to 100.
Odinkalu expressed concern over what he said appeared to have been a disproportionate use of force by the military.
A purported spokesman for Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the initial violence in the three northeastern cities, saying they were revenge for a brutal military assault against the sect in 2009.
"We are responsible for the attacks in Maiduguri, Damaturu and Potiskum. We carried out the attacks to avenge the killings of our brothers by the security forces in 2009," Abul Qaqa said.
"We will continue to wage war against the Nigerian state until we abolish the secular system and establish an Islamic state."
The military has been accused of killing civilians and burning their homes after previous bomb attacks attributed to Boko Haram.
Last August 2011, Nigeria's ministry of defense said it will probe alleged military misconduct by troops who were reported to be responsible for abuses of civilians during a crackdown on Boko Haram group in northeast of the country.
Local residents blamed army troops of abuse of power, going out in mass protests against their actions, including the arrest of several teachers from an Islamic school on suspicion of affiliating to Boko Haram.Boko Haram says it wants a wider application of Shari`ah across Africa's most populous nation.