Red Cross: 63 dead in northeast Nigeria attacks

November 5, 2011 - 6:55 AM

LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — At least 63 people died in a wave of bombings and shootings carried out in northeast Nigeria overnight, a Red Cross official said Saturday, as frightened mourners left their homes to begin burying their dead.

There was no claim of responsibility, but blame immediately fell on the sect known as Boko Haram, which has staged targeted assassinations and bombings around Nigeria's north.

The attacks centered around Damaturu, the capital of Yobe state, Nigerian Red Cross official Ibrahim Bulama said. The attack started Friday with a car bomb exploding outside a three-story building used as a military office and barracks in the city, with many uniformed security agents dying in the blast, Bulama said.

Gunmen then went through the town, blowing up a First Bank PLC branch and attacking at least three police stations and some churches, leaving them in rubble, he said. Gunfire continued through the night and gunmen raided the village of Potiskum near the capital as well, witnesses said, leaving at least two people dead there.

On Saturday morning, people began hesitantly leaving their homes, seeing the destruction left behind, including military and police vehicles burned by the gunmen, with the burned corpses of the drivers who died in their seats.

Bulama spoke to The Associated Press by telephone Saturday morning from a common Muslim burial ground in the city as his family buried a relative and friend, a police officer who died after suffering a gunshot wound to the head in the fighting.

"There's that fear that something might possibly happen again," he said.

State government officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment Saturday morning.

The attacks around Damaturu came after four separate bombings struck Maiduguri, about 80 miles (130 kilometers) east. One blast detonated around noon outside the El-Kanemi Theological College where parents had gathered. Police said others had entered the college grounds to attend Friday prayers at a mosque located on its campus.

Witnesses who spoke to the AP said they saw ambulances carry away at least six wounded people from the site.

A short time later, suicide bombers driving a black SUV attempted to enter a base for the military unit charged with protecting the city from Boko Haram fighters, military spokesman Lt. Col. Hassan Ifijeh Mohammed said. The SUV couldn't enter the gate and the explosives were detonated outside of the base, which damaged several buildings in the military's compound, Mohammed said.

Mohammed said blasts occurred at three other places in Maiduguri besides the base, with no one being killed. However, government officials routinely downplay such attacks in Nigeria over political considerations. Mohammed's claims could not be immediately verified by the AP and the local police commissioner declined to say how many people had been wounded.

The bombings come ahead of Eid al-Adha, or the feast of sacrifice, when Muslims around the world slaughter sheep and cattle in remembrance of Abraham's near-sacrifice of his son. Police elsewhere in the country had warned of violence ahead of the celebration in Nigeria, a country of more than 160 million largely split between a Christian south and a Muslim north. On Wednesday, police in Maiduguri had said they broke up a plot to bomb the city over the holiday.

If claimed by Boko Haram, the attacks would be the most bold and coordinated ever carried out by the group, whose name means "Western education is sacrilege." In August, Boko Haram claimed responsibility for a suicide car bombing at the United Nations headquarters in Nigeria's capital, which killed 24 people and left another 116 wounded.

The group has carried out an increasingly bloody sectarian fight with Nigeria's weak central government, seeking to put strict Shariah law in place in the oil-rich nation.

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Njadvara Musa reported from Maiduguri, Nigeria.

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Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.