MAIDUGURI, Nigeria – Gunmen suspected to be part of a radical Muslim sect attacked a church and killed a policeman in northeast Nigeria, just weeks after police assigned officers to protect churches in the region, authorities said Monday.
At least eight other people died in weekend rioting in the central Nigerian city of Jos, a flashpoint of religious tension between Christians and Muslims, police said. Security forces patrolled the city's empty streets, as many stayed home out of fear of new attacks.
The policemen was killed after gunmen in Maiduguri opened fire on the church in a drive-by shooting near the Maiduguri International Airport after the sunset Sunday night, Borno state police commissioner Mohammed Abubakar said. Abubakar said the attackers also shot the church's watchman in the leg and in the shoulder.
"We were in the house when we heard some gunshots — pow, pow, pow — and within four minutes, the gunmen fired several gunshots into the church wall and entrances," Rev. Elshah Gufwan said.
Abubakar blamed a sect known locally as Boko Haram for the attack. Security forces thought they had crushed Boko Haram after rioting in 2009 and the death of its leader. Now, members have stepped up their attacks, ambushing policemen at security checkpoints and orchestrating attacks in broad daylight.
Sunday's assault was the latest since two Christmas Eve church attacks left six people dead, including a pastor and choir members who had been practicing for a late-night carol service.
In Jos, about 320 miles (520 kilometers) away from Maiduguri, Plateau State police commissioner Abdurrahman Akano confirmed at least eight people died in weekend rioting that began when Christian youths in a village nearby attacked a car carrying Muslims coming home from a wedding Friday night.
Local officials in the Christian and Muslim communities gave their own accounts of the violence Monday. Mark Lipdo, coordinator of a Christian organization called the Stefanos Foundation, said his volunteers saw seven dead Christian taken to a local hospital.
"I saw rioters shooting four people with my own eyes," said Samuel Bondip, a lawyer living in a Christian neighborhood, "They burnt down St. Peter's Church and a school near Bolingo Hotel. Somebody was burnt to ashes inside the church."
Malam Danjuma Mohamed, an official with a large Islamic organization, said that his mosque had received the bodies of seven Muslims from one neighborhood. He also said a mosque had been burned down.
Witnesses said the Friday night attack left seven people dead and sparked retaliatory violence that left another person dead Saturday. Separately, three people were killed and several others were wounded in Jos when a meeting of a political party aligned with former military dictator Muhammadu Buhari collapsed into violence Saturday, witnesses said.
Those attacks came after four bombs exploded in Jos on Christmas Eve, killing at least 32 people.
Nigeria, an oil-rich country of 150 million people, is almost evenly split between Muslims in the north and the predominantly Christian south. Jos is in the nation's "middle belt," where dozens of ethnic groups vie for control of fertile lands.
The Jos violence, though fractured across religious lines, often has more to do with local politics, economics and rights to grazing lands.
Associated Press writers Ahmed Saka in Jos, Nigeria and Yinka Ibukun in Lagos, Nigeria contributed to this report.