JOS, Nigeria (AP) — A suicide car bomber detonated his explosives outside a major church Sunday, killing three people and wounding 38 in a restive central Nigerian city that has seen hundreds die in religious and ethnic violence.
The radical Islamist sect Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the attack on the main headquarters of the Church of Christ in Nigeria that hit as worshippers took part in an early morning service. The attack follows other assaults the sect has claimed against Christians in Nigeria's north, widening distrust between the two main faiths in the multiethnic nation of more than 160 million people.
The attack killed a woman, and a father and his child near the explosion, Plateau state spokesman Pam Ayuba said. The bomber apparently ran down the woman while racing his car toward the church compound, said Mark Lipdo, a coordinator for a Christian group called the Stefanos Foundation. The blast left shattered glass all over the church compound, as an angry crowd of youths began smashing the windows of cars passing by the scene, witnesses said.
Emergency officials took 38 people to hospitals for treatment, said Yushau Shuaib, a spokesman with Nigeria's National Emergency Management Agency.
In a statement, President Goodluck Jonathan condemned the attack.
"Those who seek to divide us by fear and terror will not succeed," it read. "The indiscriminate bombing of Christians and Muslims is a threat to all peace-loving Nigerians."
Speaking to journalists in a conference call Sunday, a Boko Haram spokesman using the nom de guerre Abul-Qaqa claimed responsibility for the suicide car bombing. He also said the sect was responsible for burning down a primary school in Maiduguri, its spiritual home, as a warning to security agencies not to invade Islamic schools.
"Our attacks have no distinction on any person, be him Muslim or Christian," the spokesman said. "For as long as they stand against us and our cause, their blood is legitimate to be shed."
Boko Haram has launched increasingly bloody attacks across Nigeria, including ones on churches. A Christmas Day bombing of a Catholic church that left at least 44 dead was claimed by the sect in Madalla, a town just outside the country's capital, Abuja.
The group also claimed responsibility for bomb attacks on Christmas Eve that struck Jos in 2010, killing as many as 80 people.
Jos and surrounding Plateau state have been torn apart in recent years by violence pitting its different ethnic groups and major religions — Christianity and Islam — against each other. Human Rights Watch says at least 1,000 people were killed in communal clashes around Jos in 2010.
The violence, though fractured across religious lines, often has more to do with local politics, economics and rights to grazing lands.
The government of Plateau state is controlled by Christian politicians who have blocked Muslims from being legally recognized as citizens. That has locked many out of prized government jobs in a region where the tourism industry and tin mining have collapsed in recent decades.
Meanwhile, authorities said Saturday that suspected sect gunmen killed two police officers in separate attacks in Kaduna and Maiduguri, areas previously targeted by the sect. In Gombe state, an unexploded bomb from a Boko Haram attack Friday that had killed 12 people detonated Saturday morning outside a divisional police headquarters, though it was not immediately clear if anyone was injured.
Also Sunday, police in Bauchi state said they stopped an attack on a church, though they said the seven people arrested were Christians who were embroiled in an internal dispute with the church.
Associated Press writers Haruna Umar in Maiduguri, Nigeria; Saadatu Mohammed in Gombe, Nigeria; Sbehu Saulawa in Bauchi, Nigeria; and Bashir Adigun in Abuja, Nigeria, contributed to this report.
Jon Gambrell reported from Lagos, Nigeria. He can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellap.