KANO, Nigeria – Gunmen attacked worship services at a university campus and a church Sunday in northern Nigeria, killing at least 21 people in coordinated assaults that saw panicked Christians gunned down as they tried to flee, witnesses and officials said.
The deadlier attack targeted an old section of Bayero University's campus in the city of Kano where churches hold Sunday services, with gunmen killing at least 16 people and wounding at least 22 others, according to the Nigerian Red Cross.
A later attack in the northeast city of Maiduguri saw gunmen open fire at a Church of Christ in Nigeria chapel, killing five people, including a pastor preparing for Communion, witnesses said.
No group immediately claimed responsibility, but the attacks bore similarities to others carried by a radical Islamist sect known as Boko Haram.
The Bayero University attack occurred around an old theater and lecture halls where local churches hold services, Kano state police commissioner Ibrahim Idris said. The gunmen rode into the campus on motorcycles, then threw small explosives made out of soda cans around the area, Idris said.
The worshippers ran out in an attempt to escape, only to be shot by the waiting gunmen, the commissioner said.
"By the time we responded, they entered (their) motorcycles and disappeared into the neighborhood," the commissioner said.
After the attack, police and soldiers cordoned off the campus as gunfire echoed in the surrounding streets. Abubakar Jibril, a spokesman for Nigeria's National Emergency Management Agency, said security forces refused to allow rescuers to enter the campus. Soldiers also turned away journalists from the university.
The city of Maiduguri, the target of second attack, is where Boko Haram once had its main mosque.
Witnesses who declined to give their names out of fear the sect would target them said the gunmen stormed into the service and began firing. Most escaped, though as people came out of hiding later they found the pastor dead in a pool of blood in the sanctuary, witnesses said. Four other worshippers died in the attack, they said.
Borno state police spokesman Samuel Tizhe later confirmed the attack took place and said officers would investigate.
Representatives of Boko Haram, who typically speak to journalists at times of their choosing in telephone conference calls, could not immediately be reached for comment Sunday.
Boko Haram is waging a growing sectarian battle with Nigeria's weak central government, using suicide car bombs and assault rifles in attacks across the country's predominantly Muslim north and around its capital, Abuja. Those killed have included Christians, Muslims and government officials. The sect has been blamed for killing more than 450 people this year alone, according to an Associated Press count.
Diplomats and military officials say Boko Haram has links with two other al-Qaida-aligned terrorist groups in Africa. Members of the sect also reportedly have been spotted in northern Mali, an area where Tuareg rebels and hardline Islamists seized control over the past month.
In January, a coordinated assault on government buildings and other sites in Kano by Boko Haram killed at least 185 people. In the time since, the sect has been blamed for attacking police stations and carrying out smaller assaults in the city.
On Thursday, the sect carried out a suicide car bombing at the Abuja offices of the influential newspaper ThisDay and a bombing at an office building it shared with other publications in the city of Kaduna. At least seven people were killed in those attacks. Late Thursday night, gunmen also bombed a building at the campus of Gombe State University, though authorities said no one was injured in the attack.
Boko Haram has rejected efforts to begin indirect peace talks with Nigeria's government. Its demands include the introduction of strict Islamic law across the country, even in its predominantly Christian south, and the release of all imprisoned followers.
Churches also have been increasingly targeted by Boko Haram. A Christmas Day suicide bombing of a Catholic church in Madalla near Nigeria's capital killed at least 44 people.
Nigeria, a multiethnic nation of more than 160 million people, has seen anger grow over crushing poverty and corrupt politicians in the north, fueling resentment against the government and the West in the oil-rich nation.
Associated Press writer Haruna Umar in Maiduguri, Nigeria contributed to this report.
Jon Gambrell reported from Lagos, Nigeria, and can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellap.