Nigerian authorities are searching for several gunmen involved in a killing spree Sunday at a Catholic church in the town of Owo that left at least 50 people dead. Witnesses said that the suspects opened fire inside and outside the building in what officials and analysts called a carefully planned attack.
“The attack is undoubtedly terrorist in nature, and the scale and brutality suggests it was carefully planned rather than impulsive,” Eric Humphery-Smith, a senior Africa analyst at Verisk Maplecroft risk intelligence consultancy, told the Associated Press.
Nigerian security forces said that explosives were used in the violent assault at St. Francis Church, but the assailants were able to escape. Local residents told Amnesty International that the attack lasted about 15 minutes before security forces responded to the scene.
A number of worshippers were also injured in the incident, though an exact figure is unknown as local hospitals were overcome with victims.
"Immediately they entered and started firing everywhere, so many people," Alex Michael, a churchgoer who was shot in the leg, told Reuters. He had been protecting his children by hiding them under chairs during the deadly ordeal.
Church attendees were celebrating the feast of Pentecost, an important holiday in the Catholic church, when the gunfire erupted. The assault stunned the usually peaceful town of Owo, which is located in the southwestern region of Nigeria in the Ondo state and had not been affected by the violence carried out by armed groups elsewhere in the country.
On Monday, streaks of blood still marked the church’s walls, loose articles of clothing and one-off sneakers were spread throughout the sanctuary amongst piles of broken glass. No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack.
With 206 million residents, Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation. Over the past two decades, violence has become more commonplace as Islamic extremist Boko Haram rebels have sought to establish Sharia, or Islamic law, in the country. The militants have killed upwards of 35,000 people, according to the U.N.
Ondo’s state Gov. Arakunrin Akeredolu called Sunday’s assault a “vile & satanic attack.”
“It is a black Sunday in Owo,” he said. “Our hearts are heavy. Our peace and tranquility have been attacked by the enemies of the people.”
One woman lost both of her parents in the attack, telling CNN that they never missed Sunday service.
"My dad was a knight and the chairman of the Catholic Men Organization,” Laide Ajanaku told the news site. “He was very religious and doctrinal. There was no doubt in my mind that they had witnessed the attack at the very least, but I didn’t know that they would be so affected.”
Outrage, sadness and frustration has poured in on social media from Nigerian celebrities, calling for justice for the lives lost.
“Jesus take control,” Afrobeats artist David Adeleke tweeted. “Pray for Nigeria Rip to all the lost souls.”
Actress Toyin Abraham wrote on Instagram, “May the souls of the departed rest in peace and may God give their loved ones the strength to carry on at this very sad [time]. My heart is broken.”
“Nothing is sacred anymore!?” rapper Burna Boy tweeted, noting that mothers, fathers, children and babies were killed in the attack. “My heartfelt condolences to all those who have lost family or friends from terrorists [sic] strikes across our country these past few months. I stand with you.”
Pope Francis also shared his condolences in a tweet, calling for healing and “the conversion of those blinded by hatred and violence.”
As the search for the perpetrators continued, leaders from Amnesty International called on authorities to get to the bottom of the ordeal.
“What happened in Owo reveals the impunity enjoyed by gunmen on the rampage across Nigeria,” Osai Ojigho, Amnesty International’s Nigeria director said. “This tragic event should offer a wake-up call for the authorities, who must now do everything they can to ensure the perpetrators of this appalling crime face justice.”
Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; Photos: Sunday Alamba/AP Photo (2)