Suicide blast kills 15 in Bauchi church

KANO, Nigeria (AFP)

A suicide bomber who tried to drive an explosives-packed car into a church in northern Nigeria on Sunday killed at least 15 people, including himself, and injured 40, officials said.

Speeding up his vehicle, the attacker approached a checkpoint near the church in Bauchi State, which has previously been hit by Islamist group Boko Haram and where tension between Muslims and Christians has led to violence in the past.

"We have a checkpoint not far from the church which prevented the bomber from gaining access to his target," said state police commissioner Mohammed Ladan.

"So he rammed the car into a security gate and the car exploded," Ladan added.

Bauchi's State Emergency Management Agency said in a statement that it found 15 dead bodies at the blast site and evacuated 40 injured people to a nearby hospital, adding that the area around the church had been cordoned off by police.

Witnesses said the force of the blast near the Harvest Field of Christ church on the outskirts of Bauchi city caused the building to collapse on the worshippers inside.

Residents said that when the building came down, some fled outside seeking refuge, but ran into a raging fire.

"There was confusion as residents and churchgoers tried to flee. Some of them out of fright fell into the fire caused by the explosion," said resident Timothy Joshua.

Another witness, who requested anonymity, said the bomber had an accomplice who tried to escape the scene after the blast went off, but was chased down and killed by enraged residents. Police could not confirm this account.

"The other bomber abandoned the car they came with and wanted to flee, but he was pursued by a resident and worshippers and beaten to death," this witness said.

Prior to 2009, Bauchi was plagued by violence between the state's Christian and Muslim communities, while the nearby city of Jos in Plateau state has seen some of Nigeria's most deadly sectarian strife.

No group has claimed Sunday's attack, but Boko Haram, responsible for more than 1,000 deaths since July 2009, has repeatedly targeted Christians, typically while they are worshipping in church.

The group also blew up a military barracks and killed 13 in Bauchi city on May 29, 2011, just hours after President Goodluck Jonathan was inaugurated.

Over the last year, the Boko Haram menace has continuously challenged Johnson's leadership of Africa's most populous and top oil producing nation.

The group's attacks have grown more sophisticated and have increasingly affected a wider geographical area, spreading from their base in the extreme northeast across the wider north and down to the capital Abuja, in the centre of the country.

Jonathan has faced mounting criticism for his apparent inability to contain the nation's most urgent security threat.

Boko Haram is believed to have a number of different cells, some with ties to foreign extremist organisations like Al-Qaeda's north Africa branch, which has reportedly provided weapons training in northern Mali.

Others cells are thought to have a narrowly domestic focus, and have listed as a key demand the imposition of sharia law across Nigeria's mainly Muslim north.

Jonathan, from the majority Christian south, has encouraged Boko Haram to enter peace talks, but an attempt to negotiate that was launched earlier this year quickly fizzled.

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