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Dozens fear death in Nigeria church attack

LAGOS, Nigeria — Dozens of people are believed to have died after assailants attacked a Catholic church in southwestern Nigeria on Sunday, shooting worshipers as they celebrated mass, according to local officials.

The attack on St. Francis Catholic Church in Owo, Ondo State was the deadliest attack on a church in Nigeria in years and brought the kind of violence usually seen in the north of the country in a relatively peaceful region of Africa’s most populous nation. .

The attack happened on Pentecost Sunday as dozens of worshipers gathered at the church. At least four assailants stormed the building, police said.

It was the first time a church had been attacked in Ondo State in recent years, bringing a new sense of insecurity to a state that had been spared the levels of violence seen elsewhere in Nigeria.

President Muhammadu Buhari, who has vowed to end insecurity in Nigeria, condemned the attack as a “despicable act”.

By Sunday evening, no responsibility had been claimed and the motive for the massacre was unclear.

Most attacks on churches have taken place in the north, but have become less frequent than they were at the height of the Boko Haram insurgency around 2015. In the southwest, where the attack against the church took place on Sunday, there were kidnappings, most often by shepherds demanding ransom, and there were disputes with shepherds over new restrictions on open pastures.

Officials were still assessing the toll of Sunday’s attack. Videos posted on social media showed bodies lying in pools of blood between pews.

Oluwole Ogunmolasuyi, the Ondo State Assembly Majority Leader, visited the scene of the massacre and said he saw at least 20 dead, many of them children. He estimated the death toll at between 70 and 100.

Adelegbe Timileyin, a federal lawmaker representing the Owo region, told The Associated Press that at least 50 people had been killed.

The attack came amid renewed social and economic tensions in Nigeria, where regular killings and kidnappings have deepened a deep sense of insecurity and resentment against the government ahead of the next presidential election scheduled for February.

As mass took place around 11:30 a.m., armed assailants fired on worshipers from outside the church while other gunmen targeted people inside the building, police said in a statement on Sunday. evening.

“It’s a black Sunday in Owo,” Ondo Governor Arakunrin Akeredolu said. damn a “vile and satanic attack” on people “who have enjoyed relative peace over the years”.

Nigeria is roughly divided between Christians living mainly in the south and Muslims populating the north of the country.

Much of the violence in Nigeria, such as killings and kidnappings, has mostly taken place in the northwest and center of the country.

Gunmen killed dozens of people in central Plateau State last month, and in April eight people were killed and dozens abducted on a popular train line linking the capital, Abuja, to the center Kaduna region in the north.

The attack, on a route authorities touted as a safe alternative to a highway where kidnappings by bandits are commonplace, angered many Nigerians who blamed Mr Buhari for his failure to stem the outbreak of violence.

No group claimed responsibility for the attack on the train. Authorities said elements of the Boko Haram terror group teamed up with local bandits for the attack. Dozens of passengers are still being held hostage by kidnappers.

Episodes of violence sometimes break out between Muslims and Christians in the country. Last month, a Christian student was beaten to death and her body set on fire after fellow students accused her of sending blasphemous messages about the Prophet Muhammad during a group WhatsApp chat.

Last week, a man was killed and burned to death in Abuja after an argument with a Muslim cleric, police said. In late May, the leader of the Methodist Church in Nigeria was kidnapped and released days later after Methodist officials said he had paid a ransom.

On Sunday after the attack on St. Francis Catholic Church, Mr. Akeredolu, the Governor of Ondo, also warned against vigilantism in response to the attack.

Ben Ezeamalu reported from Lagos, Nigeria, and Elian Peltier from Dakar, Senegal.

nytimes Gt

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