Suicide attacks on churches in northern Nigeria and subsequent rioting by Christian youths targeting Muslims killed at least 36 people on Sunday, officials said.
Bomb blasts struck three churches in the northern Kaduna State in the space of an hour, the latest in a string of Sunday attacks that has threatened to ignite wider sectarian strife across the divided country.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the bloodshed, but the attacks were likely to be blamed on Boko Haram, an extremist group that seeks to create an Islamic state and has been responsible for recent bombings.
Officials put the state — which last year saw sectarian violence that left more than 600 people dead — under curfew for 24 hours “to assess the situation,” banning Kaduna’s 7 million inhabitants from leaving their homes for a full day.
Suicide bombers attacked two churches in the city of Zaria and one in Kaduna city, killing at least 16 people, national police spokesman Frank Mba said in a statement. After news of the blasts spread, Christian youths took to the main motorway that leads to the capital Abuja, attacking motorists who looked Muslim.
Christian mobs carrying machetes and clubs were also prowling the streets of Kaduna city, the Red Cross said.
“Aid workers accompanied by armed policemen have been combing the streets in the southern parts of the city picking dead bodies from reprisal attacks. So far we have recovered over 20 bodies,” said a Red Cross official who requested anonymity.
Most were “burned to death beyond recognition,” he added.
A reporter said he saw the bodies of 10 people killed by rioters at a morgue.
More than 100 people were injured in the day of violence, according to the Nigerian National Emergency Management Agency.
The first blast struck ECWA Goodnews Church in the Wusasa area of Zaria city at 8:35am. The second explosion went off 10 minutes later at the Christ the King Catholic Church in Zaria’s Sabongari area, a police statement said.
The third blast hit the Shalom Church in Kaduna city at 9:30am, where a worshiper said he saw a bomber drive a car packed with explosives into the church building.
“Right away the car exploded and killed a soldier and two private security guards guarding the church,” Joseph Emmanuel said.
Emergency officials had also reported attacks on churches in Nassarawa and Barnawa in the south of the same state, but police did not confirm them and the targets of the blasts remained unclear.
The violent response by Christian youth mobs that followed the attacks was termed “a momentary breakdown of law and order,” in the police statement.
One Kaduna resident said it was not safe to travel.
“I canceled my trip to Abuja because of the huge number of rioters that have taken over the roads,” the man said.
Boko Haram has already this month claimed two attacks that struck churches on Sundays, including a suicide blast in Bauchi State that left at least 15 dead.