MAIDUGURI, Nigeria — Gunmen from a radical Muslim sect attacked a town hall Friday in rural northeast Nigeria, killing at least 20 people who had gathered for a meeting of a Christian ethnic group, police said.
The attack at noon targeted a town hall where Christian Igbo people were holding a meeting, with gunmen chanting “God is great” as they fired Kalashnikov rifles.
The killings claimed by Boko Haram come after the group threatened to begin specifically targeting Christians living in the country’s Muslim north in its increasingly bloody sectarian fight with Nigeria’s weak central government. That could further inflame religious tensions in an uneasy nation already gripped by civil unrest.
The attack occurred in Mubi in Adamawa state as Igbo traders held a meeting before opening up their shops for business, local police commissioner Ade T. Shinaba said.
“We started hearing many gunshots through the windows,” said Okey Raymond, 48, who attended the meeting. “Everyone scampered for safety, but the gunmen chanted: ’God is great God is great’ while shooting at us.”
Raymond said he hid under a table and escaped out a back door. The gunmen also carried knives and machetes, the police commissioner said.
No arrests have been made in the attack, which left at least another 15 people wounded.
Friday’s attack comes after gunmen attacked a church in the northeast Nigeria city of Gombe during a prayer service Thursday night, spraying the congregation with gunfire and killing at least eight people including the pastor’s wife, local medical officials said.
In a statement Friday to The Daily Trust, the newspaper of record in Nigeria’s north, a Boko Haram spokesman using the nom de guerre Abul-Qaqa claimed responsibility for the attacks in Gombe and Mubi.
“We want to prove to the federal government of Nigeria that we can always change our tactics,” the spokesman said.
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. It has targeted churches in the past in its campaign to implement strict Shariah law across Nigeria.
The group claimed responsibility for an attack that killed at least 42 people in a Christmas Day bombing of a Catholic church near Abuja, as well as a suicide car bombing targeting the U.N. headquarters in the capital that killed 25 people and wounded more than 100.
Nigeria’s central government has been slow to respond to the sect. On Dec. 31, President Goodluck Jonathan declared regions of Borno, Niger, Plateau and Yobe states to be under a state of emergency — meaning authorities can make arrests without proof and conduct searches without warrants. He also ordered international borders near Borno and Yobe state to be closed.
However, the areas where the recent church and town hall attacks happened are not in the areas marked by the president. Late Friday though, police confirmed they were engaged in an ongoing gun battle with suspected members of the sect in Potiskum, a town in Yobe state.
The attacks also come after the group said it would begin targeting Christians living in Nigeria’s Muslim north.
Igbo traders, who belong to one of the country’s three dominant ethnic groups, do business and live across Nigeria’s north though the Igbo traditionally have lived in the country’s southeast. The group has been targeted in the north before. In the months before the country’s 1960s civil war, Igbos fled the north after violence against them saw as many as 10,000 people die.