A bomb exploded in a crowded shopping centre in Nigeria’s capital Abuja on Wednesday, killing at least 21 people and wounding 17, police and the government said, adding to an already bad week for the West African giant.
“The casualty figure for now is 21 persons dead, 17 injured,” national police spokesman Frank Mba said, adding that an arrest had been made. Senior government spokesman Mike Omeri confirmed that the blast was the result of “a bomb attack”.
“We received the information at about 4:00 pm (1500 GMT) about a blast” at the Emab Plaza, not far from the seat of government, said Manzo Ezekiel, spokesman for the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA).
“Rescue operation has already commenced,” he told news agency AFP. “You can see smoke billowing from the sky. It’s a very crowded place. It’s full of people on a working day.”
An employee of the nearby Newcastle Hotel in the Wuse II area of the city, who did not want to be named, said she clearly heard the explosion.
Boko Haram has attacked Nigeria’s capital twice in the last 10 weeks. A car bombing killed 75 people at the Nyanya bus terminal on the outskirts of the city on April 14 while a copycat bombing at the same spot on May 1 left 19 people dead.
Soldiers and police cordoned off the scene of the blast and firefighters were at the location, as thick smoke billowed into the sky, an AFP reporter on the ground said.
The blast came as suspected Boko Haram militants abducted more than 60 women and girls, some as young as three, in the latest kidnappings in northeast Nigeria and over two months since more than 200 schoolgirls were seized.
Analysts said the kidnapping, which happened during a raid late Monday on Kummabza village in the Damboa district of Borno state, could be an attempt by the Islamist group to refocus attention on its demands for the release of militant fighters.
Boko Haram has indicated that it would be willing to release the 219 schoolgirls that it has held hostage since April 14 in exchange for the freedom of its brothers in arms currently held in Nigerian jails.
Nigeria initially refused to sanction any deal, but efforts have since been made to open talks with the group, with a possible prisoner swap part of discussions.
Borno senator Ali Ndume confirmed the latest abductions, and said Boko Haram “took advantage” as people returned to the area to check on their farms during flooding when there was no military presence in the area.
“Boko Haram selected young males and females” as hostages, and “left the elderly”, he said, amid local media reports that some 30 young boys may have also been taken.
‘Shot on spot’
Aji Khalil, a local vigilante leader, said: “Over 60 women were abducted by Boko Haram terrorists. They were forcefully taken away by Boko Haram terrorists.
“Four villagers who tried to escape were shot dead on the spot.”
Damboa local government officials said they were afraid to speak out because of the controversy surrounding the Chibok abductions, with Nigeria’s government coming under heavy criticism for its slow response.
News of the abductions came as locals in three villages of the Askira Uba district, some 60 kilometres (35 miles) to the south, said they had been attacked over the weekend.
Resident Emos Ali said “many” people had died, although no official toll was available.
A bomb blast blamed on Boko Haram killed at least eight at a public health college in the northern city of Kano on Monday.
The newly-appointed religious leader the Emir of Kano, former central bank governor Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, said the attack had “traumatised every one of us” after visiting the wounded in hospital.
“We pray to Allah to bring an end to this security situation and may Allah not allow a repeat of this,” he said in his first comments on Boko Haram violence since his appointment.
Boko Haram, which has been waging a deadly insurgency since 2009, used the kidnapping of women and young girls as a tactic even before the mass abduction of the schoolgirls in the remote Borno town of Chibok.
Meanwhile, security forces in neighbouring Cameroon killed eight gunmen believed to be members of Boko Haram, a paramilitary officer said there Tuesday.
The far north of Cameroon has become a hotbed of Boko Haram activity, with its porous borders making it an easy staging post for attacks and kidnappings in Nigeria.
A mixed squad of soldiers and paramilitary officers were patrolling the area around the town of Mora when they came across “a dozen Islamists,” the officer from regional capital Maroua said on condition of anonymity.
“Clashes broke out and our forces got the upper hand. Eight Boko Haram were killed,” he said.