Authorities in southwest Nigeria’s Ondo state said Tuesday that 22 people were killed and 58 others were injured in a recent attack by gunmen at a church.
The violence at St Francis Catholic Church in the city of Owo during Sunday mass was a rare assault in a region usually considered safer than others in the country, and drew widespread international condemnation.
“Hospitals in Owo were filled with the injured, most of who were in critical conditions… Unfortunately the death toll is 22,” Governor Arakunrin Oluwarotimi Akeredolu said in a broadcast, adding that 56 people were still in hospital and two had been discharged.
“The most unfortunate part is the lives of innocent children cut down in their prime and some severely injured by the mindless attackers,” he added.
The governor described the gunmen responsible for the “vile and satanic attack” as “blood thirsty terrorists”.
Police had said earlier that the gunmen hid among the worshippers inside the church and also opened fire on the congregation through the windows from outside.
“Investigations revealed that some of the gunmen disguised as congregants, while other armed men who had positioned themselves around the church premises from different directions, fired into the church,” the police said in a statement.
Fragments of explosives and three unexploded improvised explosive devices were found at the scene.
Father Andrew Abayomi who conducted the service told AFP that some worshippers managed to close the church door and hide in the vestry with others, including children, for about 20 minutes before emerging to scenes of carnage.
Two days later, the anger is still palpable in Owo, the governor said, urging residents not to take the law into their own hands.
“I can assure you that security operatives have been deployed to monitor and restore normalcy to Owo,” he added.
The state has declared a seven-day mourning period and ordered the national flag to be flown at half-mast in Ondo.
Pope Francis was “deeply saddened” by the “horrible attack”, his number two, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, wrote in a telegram to the bishop of Ondo.
The pope assures “all those who are affected by this unspeakable act of violence of his spiritual closeness”, he said.
The attack came a day before Nigeria’s ruling APC party started primaries for its candidate in the 2023 election to replace Muhammadu Buhari, who steps down next year after two terms in office.
Security will be a major challenge for whoever wins the race to govern Africa’s most populous country and the continent’s largest economy.
Nigerian security forces are battling jihadist groups in the northeast, criminal gangs in the northwest and centre and separatist stirrings in the southeast, among other challenges.
There has been no claim of responsibility for Sunday’s attack.