Lagos: Gunmen attacked a Catholic church in southwest Nigeria during mass on Sunday, killing at least 50 people including women and children, according to a hospital doctor and media reports.
Several Nigerian news outlets said gunmen had fired at worshippers and detonated explosives at St Francis Catholic Church in the town of Owo. The identity and motive of the attackers was not immediately clear.
St. Francis Catholic Church in Owo, Nigeria after the attack.Credit:AP
The authorities have yet to give details of the attack. Funmilayo Ibukun Odunlami, police spokesperson for Ondo state, said police would issue a further statement soon.
“It is so sad that while the Holy Mass was going on, unknown gunmen attacked St Francis Catholic Church...leaving many feared dead and many others injured and the church violated,” said Catholic Church spokesman in Nigeria, Reverend Augustine Ikwu.
The presiding priest was abducted as well, said Adelegbe Timileyin, who represents the Owo area in Nigeria’s lower legislative chamber.
“Our hearts are heavy,” Ondo Governor Rotimi Akeredolu tweeted Sunday. “Our peace and tranquillity have been attacked by the enemies of the people.”
People in the church after the attack. Credit:AP
Authorities did not immediately release an official death toll. Timileyin said at least 50 people had been killed, though others put the figure higher. Videos appearing to be from the scene of the attack showed church worshippers lying in pools of blood while people around them wailed.
A doctor at a hospital in Owo told Reuters that at least 50 bodies had been brought in to two hospitals in the town from the attack. The doctor, who declined to be named because he is not authorised to speak to the press, also said there was a need for blood donations to treat the injured.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said “only fiends from the nether region could have conceived and carried out such dastardly act,” according to a statement from his spokesman.
“No matter what, this country shall never give in to evil and wicked people, and darkness will never overcome light. Nigeria will eventually win,” said Buhari, who was elected after vowing to end Nigeria’s prolonged security crisis.
In Rome, Pope Francis responded to news of the attack.
“The pope has learned of the attack on the church in Ondo, Nigeria and the deaths of dozens of worshippers, many children, during the celebration of Pentecost. While the details are being clarified, Pope Francis prays for the victims and the country, painfully affected at a time of celebration, and entrusts them both to the Lord so that he may send his spirit to console them,” the pope said in a statement issued by the Vatican press office.
Ondo state governor Arakunrin Oluwarotimi Akeredolu cut short a trip to the capital Abuja and returned to Ondo after the attack. “We shall commit every available resource to hunt down these assailants and make them pay,” he said in a statement.
It was not immediately clear who was behind the attack on the church. While much of Nigeria has struggled with security issues, Ondo is widely known as one of Nigeria’s most peaceful states. The state, though, has been caught up in a rising violent conflict between farmers and herders.
Personal belongings and shoes lie on the pavement of St Francis Catholic Church in Owo.Credit:AP
Nigeria is battling an Islamist insurgency in the northeast and armed gangs who carry out attacks and kidnappings for ransom, mostly in the northwest.
In the southwest, attacks such as this are rare.
Nigeria’s security forces did not immediately respond to questions about how the attack occurred or if there are any leads about suspects. Owo is about 345 kilometres east of Lagos.
“In the history of Owo, we have never experienced such an ugly incident,” said lawmaker Oluwole. “This is too much.”
Get a note directly from our foreign correspondents on what’s making headlines around the world. Sign up for the weekly What in the World newsletter here.