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Nigerian forces hunt for gunmen who killed 50 at church

OWO, NIGERIA (AP) – The gunmen who killed at least 50 people at a church in southwestern Nigeria opened fire on worshippers both inside and outside the building in a coordinated attack before escaping the scene, authorities and witnesses said on Monday.

Although Nigerian security forces have not yet identified who carried out Sunday’s attack on St Francis Church in the town of Owo in relatively peaceful Ondo state, analysts suggested they came from elsewhere in the West African nation, which is plagued by violence from various armed groups, kidnappers and extremists. No one has claimed responsibility for the church killings, in which children were among the dead and the gunmen detonated some kind of explosive, according to witnesses.

A state lawmaker from the region said the death toll was at least 50, and scores of people were wounded, although an exact number was not released by overwhelmed hospital workers.

“The attack is undoubtedly terrorist in nature, and the scale and brutality suggests it was carefully planned rather than impulsive,” said senior Africa analyst at Verisk Maplecroft risk intelligence company Eric Humphery-Smith in an interview with The Associated Press.

State Police Commissioner Oyeyemi Oyediran said security forces, including the military, pursued the attackers, “but unfortunately, we could not catch up with them”.

Nigerian police officers tape around the St Francis Catholic church in Owo Nigeria. PHOTO: AP

Vice President Yemi Osinbajo and other government officials visited the church on Monday. A day earlier, he pledged that “we will keep standing against evil, and Nigeria will win”.

Nigeria, which is Africa’s most populous country with 206 million people, has grappled for over a decade with an insurgency in the northeast by extremist rebels of Boko Haram and its offshoot, the Islamic State West Africa Province. The extremists have killed more than 35,000 people by a United Nations (UN) count.

Ondo, however, has long been considered one of the safer states in the country.

Sunday Adewale, who works in the palace of the local chief, said the gunmen used the element of surprise to their advantage.

“Everybody felt relaxed and had gone to church,” he said. “Within 30 minutes, they did what they wanted and went away.”