Gunmen launched an assault on a Catholic church in Ondo state in Nigeria during mass on Sunday, killing more than 50 people in a “satanic attack”, local officials and volunteers said.
The attackers targeted the St Francis Xavier Catholic Church in the town of Owo as the worshippers gathered on Pentecost Sunday, according to local officials. They gunned down parishioners and detonated an explosive device, local media reported.
Doctors, local officials and volunteers helping the injured said the death toll was at least 50, with dozens being treated for injuries in overwhelmed local hospitals.
Ogunmolasuyi Oluwole, state legislator, said children were among the dead. Videos appearing to be from the scene of the attack showed church worshippers lying in pools of blood while people around them wailed.
The governor of Ondo state, Arakunrin Oluwarotimi Akeredolu, condemned the “vile and satanic attack” on Sunday and pledged to find the assailants.
Rev Augustine Ikwu, a secretary of the Catholic Church in Ondo, said in a statement that the attack had “left the community devastated”.
“We turn to God to console the families of those whose lives were lost,” he said.
Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, whose government has been widely condemned for overseeing a sharp rise in insecurity across the country, also condemned the attack.
“No matter what, this country shall never give in to evil and wicked people and darkness will never overcome light,” he said.
A doctor at a hospital in the south-western town of Owo told Reutersat least 50 bodies had been moved to the main government hospital in Owo and to St Louis Catholic hospital.
Sunday Ajibola, a volunteer at one of the town’s hospitals, said he saw “nothing less than 50 dead bodies” and several others with injuries from bullets and explosives being treated by medics. Local hospitals were making urgent appeals for blood, he said.
Adeyemi Olayemi, a lawmaker in Ondo, said the attack was believed to have been carried out by ethnic Fulani terrorists, sometimes referred to as bandits, who have staged relentless attacks predominantly in northern Nigeria but also in other parts of the country.
The groups emerged from a historic conflict between pastoralists and local communities over access to land and encroachments on private farms, and have carried out mass killings and kidnappings, exploiting a lack of rural security across the country.
Olayemi said the attack was likely to have been in retaliation for recent restrictions by the state government on grazing in Ondo, including in forests where the assailants have carried out attacks. The restrictions were adopted after an upsurge in kidnappings in the state.
“We have enjoyed improved security since herdsmen were driven away from our forests by this administration,” Olayemi said. “This is a reprisal attack to send a diabolical message to the governor.”
While much of Nigeria has struggled with security issues, Ondo has been one of the country’s more peaceful states until the last few years, when kidnappings and attacks linked to herder-farmer conflicts have increased.
Akeredolu said he was heading back to the state from the capital, Abuja, after the “unprovoked attack and killing of innocent people of Owo”.
“We shall commit every available resource to hunt down these assailants and make them pay,” he said in a statement.