Armed groups with explosives attacked and fired at Catholic churches in southwestern Nigeria on Sunday, killing “many” worshipers and injuring others, according to government and police.

Violence at St Francis’ Church in Owo, Ondo, erupted during morning worship in a rare attack in southwestern Nigeria. There, jihadists and criminal organizations are active in other areas.

Pope Francis said in a statement that while celebrating Pentecost’s Christian holiday, many children learned about “the death of dozens of faithful people.”

“Pope Francis prays for the victims and the country while the details of the case are revealed,” he said.

No group claimed responsibility for the attack.

The motive and exact number of deaths were not immediately clear, but President Muhammadu Buhari accused “the vicious killing of worshipers.”

State police spokeswoman Ibukun Odunlami said shooters also attacked the church with explosives, killing an unknown number of worshipers.

“It’s too early to say exactly how many people were killed, but many worshipers died and others were injured in the attack,” she told AFP.

A spokesman for the Governor of Ondo said it would not give an official number of casualties so far.

However, witnesses who named him Abayomi told AFP that at least 20 worshipers had died in the attack.

“I was passing by the area when I heard a big explosion and gunshots in the church,” he said.

He said he saw at least five shooters on the church grounds before running for safety.

-‘Sneaky and demonic attack’-

Attacks on religious sites are particularly sensitive in Nigeria. In Nigeria, tensions can increase between communities in some countries, primarily south of Christians and predominantly north of Muslims.

Although gun and bomb attacks are rare in Ondo, Nigerian troops are fighting a 12-year-old Zihadist rebellion in the northeast, gangsters in the northwest, and separatist upsets in the southeast.

The Boko Haram jihadist group in the northeast has targeted churches in the past as part of a conflict in Nigeria, killing 40,000 people and evacuating another 2 million.

Abduction assaults are common in most parts of Nigeria, but large-scale gun attacks such as Sunday’s violence are rare in the relatively peaceful southwestern part of Nigeria.

Ondo Governor Rotimi Akeredolu said Sunday’s attack was a “sneaky and demonic attack” and urged security forces to pursue the perpetrators.

The attack will take place the day before the ruling APC party begins a primary election for candidates in the 2023 election, replacing Buhari, a former Army commander who resigned after two terms.

Security will be a major challenge for those who have won the competition to govern Africa’s most populous country and the continent’s largest economy.

In particular, parts of northwestern and central Nigeria are increasingly plagued by heavily armed gangsters who have attacked villages and targeted communities and schools targeted by mass abduction attacks.

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