GOMBE, Nigeria (AP) — Gunmen attacked a church in northeast Nigeria during a prayer service Thursday night, killing at least three people and wounding others in an assault that occurred amid an increasingly violent campaign by a radical Muslim sect.
Pastor Johnson Jauro said the gunfire sprayed the Deeper Life Church in Gombe, the capital of Gombe state, injuring several worshippers and killing his wife and two others. He spoke at a local hospital, where a joint team of soldiers and police officers stood guard. Local police spokesman Ahmed Muhammad confirmed the attack, but declined to say how many people the gunmen killed and wounded.
The assault occurred as Nigeria remains under attack by the sect known as Boko Haram. The oil-rich nation's president recently put regions of the country under a state of emergency due to the threat, but that did not include Gombe, which sits about 350 miles (570 kilometers) from Nigeria's central capital, Abuja.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, but suspicion immediately fell on Boko Haram. The sect has carried out increasingly sophisticated and bloody attacks in its campaign to implement strict Shariah law across Nigeria, a multiethnic nation of more than 160 million people.
Boko Haram, whose name means "Western education is sacrilege" in the local Hausa language, is responsible for more than 500 killings this year alone, according to an Associated Press count. The group claimed responsibility for an attack that killed at least 39 people in a Christmas Day bombing of a Catholic church near Abuja, as well as a suicide car bombing targeting the U.N. headquarters in the capital that killed 25 people and wounded more than 100.
Nigeria's weak central government has been slow to respond to the sect.
On Dec. 31, President Goodluck Jonathan declared regions of Borno, Niger, Plateau and Yobe states to be under a state of emergency — meaning authorities can make arrests without proof and conduct searches without warrants. He also ordered international borders near Borno and Yobe state to be closed.
However, it remains unclear what effect that will have on a sect that has adopted hit-and-run attacks and suicide bombings to target the country's military and police, as well as civilians.
Meanwhile, a military spokesman said Thursday that soldiers killed two armed men suspected to be Boko Haram members after "resisting arrest" in the northeastern city of Maiduguri. Lt. Col. Hassan Ifijeh Mohammed said the army believes the gunmen were responsible for an attack Wednesday evening that left two people dead.
However, human rights activists say security forces have carried out so-called "extra-judicial killings" out of frustration and anger at being unable to stop Boko Haram.
Associated Press writers Ibrahim Garba in Kano, Nigeria; Njadvara Musa in Maiduguri, Nigeria and Jon Gambrell in Lagos, Nigeria contributed to this report.