ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) — Gunmen fire on a worship service in a church in central Nigeria, killing at least 19 people — including the pastor — and wounding others in a nation often divided by religion, the military said Tuesday.
The attack targeted a Deeper Life church in the town of Otite in Kogi state, about 250 kilometers (155 miles) southwest of Nigeria’s capital Abuja. Blood stained the floors of the church as police and soldiers surrounded it Tuesday morning, witnesses said. It was unclear how many people were wounded in the attack Monday night.
The gunmen surrounded the church in the middle of a worship service and opened fire with Kalashnikov assault rifles, military spokesman Lt. Col. Gabriel Olorunyomi said. The church’s pastor was among the dead.
Soldiers searched for gunmen through the night, but had made no arrests as of Tuesday morning, Olorunyomi said. No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack.
Kogi State police spokesman Simon Ile declined to comment Tuesday about the attack. National Emergency Management Agency spokesman Yushau Shuaib said his agency had dispatched rescuers to the area Tuesday.
The attack comes as Nigeria faces continuing attacks from a radical Islamist sect known as Boko Haram. Boko Haram, whose name means “Western education is sacrilege” in the Hausa language of Nigeria’s Muslim north, has attacked churches in the past, though never as far as south. However, Boko Haram likely carried out a February prison break in the town of Koton-Karifi in Kogi state that freed 119 inmates. That attack mirrored a massive prison break in the northeastern city of Bauchi in September 2010 when Boko Haram freed about 700 inmates.
Boko Haram also has launched suicide car bomb attacks around Abuja in the past. The sect is blamed for more than 660 killings this year alone in Nigeria, according to an Associated Press count.
Nigeria, a nation of more than 160 million people, is largely divided into a Muslim north and Christian south. While members of the two faiths routinely live and work together, as well as intermarry, Boko Haram attacks have increased tensions in the nation over the last year.