ABUJA. Nigeria (AP) — Gunmen with explosives killed at least 38 persons including five children in an attack on a Catholic church in southwestern Nigeria, the Ondo State Catholic Diocese has told The Associated Press.
Some of the dead “were taken to private hospitals and we have not been able to ascertain the number of casualties for that,” said a spokesperson speaking on behalf of Bishop Jude Arogundade of the Ondo Catholic Diocese, suggesting that the death toll could be higher.
Kadiri Olanrewaju, head of Nigeria’s National Emergency Management Services in Ondo, earlier said on Tuesday that 22 bodies were counted at the morgue while two state lawmakers told AP on Sunday that more than 50 were killed in the attack at the St. Francis Catholic Church in Owo town in Ondo state.
Some bodies were taken away by family members for private burials, residents said.
The Catholic church in Ondo verified the names of the 38 persons brought to the Catholic hospital and to the Federal Medical Center, the church’s spokesperson in Ondo told AP.
Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country with 206 million people, has grappled for more than a decade with an insurgency in the northeast by the Islamic extremist rebels of Boko Haram and its offshoot, the Islamic State West Africa Province. The country now is confronted by growing insecurity problems as separatists and pirates are blamed for attacks in the country’s south while armed groups frequently launch deadly attacks in the northwest.
Before the church attack, Ondo had been considered one of Nigeria’s most peaceful states. But now Owo, a small town of traders and government workers located 50 kilometers (31 miles) from the state capital of Akure, is reeling from the violence of the church attack.
Schools and public gathering spots remained closed on Tuesday and many residents stayed at home, residents said.
The Ondo Police Command has not made any arrests yet nor have they confirmed the identities of the attackers, said to be at least five in number, a spokeswoman said.
“We can only confirm that explosives were used and we found three undetonated IEDs (improvised explosive devices) at the scene,” police spokeswoman Odunlami Funmilayo told the AP.
The attackers “sneaked into” the church premises, said the police. Some of them were “disguised as congregants while other armed men who had positioned themselves around the church premises from different directions, fired into the church,” the police added.
“There was no warning, no threat, this place has been peaceful,” said Sunday Adewale, who works in the palace of the local chief. “They just looked for people’s soft spot when people are relaxed.”
Ondo Governor Rotimi Akeredolu described the attackers as “bloodthirsty terrorists” who “unleashed an unforgettable scar on all of us.”
“The most unfortunate part is the lives of innocent children cut down in their prime and some severely injured by the mindless terrorists,” Governor Akeredolu said in a broadcast.
Women in the town protested on Tuesday. They also demanded improved security in the area.
“We are here as market women, we are here to commiserate with the people of Owo, we are to say that enough is enough,” said Yemi Mahmud, one of the protesters.
In the community, “the anger is palpable … just as the urge for reprisal is high,” said Governor Akeredolu, who promised that “we shall commit every available resource to hunt down these mindless assailants and make them pay dearly.”
Lekan Oyekanmi in Owo, Nigeria, contributed to this report.