LAGOS, Nigeria—Attacks across Nigeria by a radical Muslim sect killed at least 39 people Sunday, with the majority dying on the steps of a Catholic church in a massive explosion after Christmas Mass.
Elsewhere, a bomb exploded amid gunfire in the central Nigeria city of Jos and a suicide car bomber attacked the military in the nation’s northeast as part of an apparently coordinated assault by the sect known as Boko Haram.
The Christmas Day violence, denounced by world leaders and the Vatican, showed the threat of the widening insurrection posed by Boko Haram against Nigeria’s weak central government. Despite a recent paramilitary crackdown against the sect in the oil-rich nation, it appears that Africa’s most populous nation remains unable to stop the threat.
“These are cowardly attacks on families gathered in peace and prayer to celebrate a day which symbolizes harmony and goodwill towards others,” Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a statement.
The White House condemned what it called a “senseless” attack, offering condolences to the Nigerian people, especially the families of those killed. The White House said U.S. officials have been in contact with their counterparts in Nigeria and pledged to assist them in bringing those responsible to justice.
The first explosion Sunday struck St. Theresa Catholic Church in Madalla near Nigeria’s capital just after 8 a.m. The attack killed 35 people and wounded another 52, said Slaku Luguard, a coordinator with Nigeria’s National Emergency Management Agency.
The wounded filled the cement floors of a nearby government hospital. Bodies lined an open-air morgue.
Authorities acknowledged they couldn’t bring enough emergency medical personnel to care for the wounded. The emergency-management agency sent text messages to journalists asking for their help in getting more ambulances.
The bombing and the delayed response drew anger from those gathering around the church after the blast. The crowd initially blocked emergency workers from the blast site, only allowing them in after soldiers arrived.
In Jos, a second explosion struck near the Mountain of Fire and Miracles Church, state government spokesman Pam Ayuba said. Gunmen later opened fire on police guarding the area, killing one officer, he said. Two other locally made explosives were found in a nearby building and disarmed.
By noon Sunday, explosions echoed through the streets of Damaturu, the capital of Yobe state, where fighting between security forces and the sect already had killed at least 61 people in recent days. The most serious attack on Sunday came when a suicide bomber detonated a car loaded with explosives at the state headquarters of Nigeria’s secret police, the State Security Service.
The bomber killed three people in the blast, although the senior military commander apparently targeted survived the attack, the State Security Service said in a statement.
After the bombings, a Boko Haram spokesman using the nom de guerre Abul-Qaqa claimed responsibility for the attacks in an interview with The Daily Trust, the newspaper of record across Nigeria’s Muslim north. The sect has used the newspaper in the past to communicate with the public.
Boko Haram has carried out increasingly sophisticated and bloody attacks in its campaign to implement strict Shariah law across Nigeria, a multiethnic nation of more than 160 million people. The group, whose name means “Western education is sacrilege” in the local Hausa language, is responsible for at least 504 killings this year alone, according to an Associated Press count.
This Christmas attack comes a year after a series of Christmas Eve bombings in Jos claimed by the militants left at least 32 dead and 74 wounded. The group also claimed responsibility for the Aug. 26 bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, that killed 24 people and wounded 116 others.
The sect came to national prominence in 2009, when its members rioted and burned police stations near its base of Maiduguri, a dusty northeastern city on the cusp of the Sahara Desert. Nigeria’s military violently put down the attack, crushing the sect’s mosque into shards as its leader was arrested and died in police custody. About 700 people died during the violence.
While initially targeting enemies via hit-and-run assassinations from the back of motorbikes after the 2009 riot, violence by Boko Haram now has a new sophistication and apparent planning that includes high-profile attacks with greater casualties. That has fueled speculation about the group’s ties as it has splintered into at least three different factions, diplomats and security sources say. They say the more extreme wing of the sect maintains contact with terrorist groups in North Africa and Somalia.
Targeting the group has remained difficult, as sect members are scattered throughout northern Nigeria and nearby Cameroon, Chad and Niger. Analysts say political considerations also likely play a part in the country’s thus-far muted response: President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from the south, may be hesitant to use force in the nation’s predominantly Muslim north.
In a statement, Mr. Jonathan condemned the blasts as a “unwarranted affront on our collective safety and freedom.”
“I want to reassure all Nigerians that government will not relent in its determination to bring to justice all the perpetrators of today’s acts of violence and all others before now,” Mr. Jonathan said.
However, Mr. Jonathan has made the same promises before amid a series of spiraling attacks by the group. His spokesman, Reuben Abati, defended the president by saying the country planned to spend more on security and had made arrests targeting the group.
“The administration is very determined to address this new threat of terrorism that seems to have slipped into our environment,” Mr. Abati said.