ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) — Nigeria's police are under scrutiny after the suspected mastermind of the Christmas Day bombing that killed dozens escaped from custody during a police-escorted transfer — an embarrassment for a nation struggling to contain increasingly bloody sectarian attacks by a radical Islamist sect.
Authorities said Kabiru Sokoto planned the bombing that killed 38 people at St. Theresa Catholic Church in Madalla, just outside Nigeria's capital Abuja. But his arrest at the mansion of a state governor in Abuja, and subsequent escape, raised more questions about the government's ability to stop the radical sect, known as Boko Haram, which claimed responsibility for the church attack.
Police Affairs Minister Caleb Olubolade told journalists Wednesday that Sokoto's escape is under investigation and anyone, including himself, could be fired over the incident.
Police had said in a statement that a local commissioner ordered Sokoto transferred to another police station in Abaji, just outside of Abuja and that the policemen escorting him were attacked by suspected sect gang members who freed him.
National police spokesman Olusola Amore said Sokoto was arrested over the weekend at the official compound of the Borno state governor in Abuja. Borno state, in Nigeria's arid and dusty northeast, is Boko Haram's spiritual home.
However, Borno State spokesman Inuwa Bwala denied Tuesday evening that Sokoto was arrested in the governor's home, and said that Borno State governor Kashim Shettima and his opposition-led government were the victims of political persecution.
"There may be a grand conspiracy intended to either embarrass the governor and government of Borno state, or to eliminate (him)," Bwala said.
Commanders have already suspended the local police commissioner and are investigating his actions, as well as those of the officers guarding Sokoto, said Amore. He declined to comment further on the incident.
The Christmas Day bombing targeted worshippers at a Catholic church as they were leaving Mass, witnesses said. It was one of several attacks that day that killed at least 42 people, drawing worldwide criticism and new attention to Boko Haram.
The sect 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. Boko Haram, whose name means "Western education is sacrilege" in the local Hausa language, is responsible for at least 510 killings last year alone, according to an Associated Press count.
So far this year, the group, that has warned it will kill Christians living in Nigeria's predominantly Muslim north, has been blamed for at least 74 killings. That has further inflamed religious and ethnic tensions in Nigeria, which has seen ethnic violence kill thousands in recent years.
Boko Haram also claimed responsibility an August suicide car bombing that targeted the U.N. headquarters in the capital, killing 25 people and wounding more than 100.
In a video released last week, Imam Abubakar Shekau a Boko Haram leader, said the government could not handle attacks by the group.
Though President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from southern Nigeria, has declared emergency rule in some regions, the sect is blamed for almost daily attacks.
Jonathan has said he believes the sect has infiltrated security agencies and government offices in the country, though he has offered no evidence to back up the claim. The police affairs minister declined to comment Wednesday on possible links between government officials and the feared sect.
Meanwhile, gunmen who are suspected Boko Haram members attacked an army outpost near Maiduguri on Wednesday, killing two people. A witness said a soldier and a hospital worker died in the attack. Col. Victor Ebhaleme confirmed the attack, but declined to give further details.
On Tuesday, authorities blamed Boko Haram gunmen for killing seven people in three separate attacks. Gunmen shot dead two soldiers distributing food to other service members, Borno state police commissioner Simeone Midenda said.
Two others were killed Monday when gunmen invaded their homes, military field operation officer Col. Victor Ebhaleme said. In Damaturu in nearby Yobe state, gunmen from the sect shot and killed three more people from Chad on Monday, Yobe state police chief Tanko Lawan said.
Associated Press writers Yinka Ibukun in Lagos, Nigeria and Njadvara Musa in Maiduguri, Nigeria contributed to this report.