ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) — The suspected mastermind of the Christmas Day bombing of a Catholic church in Nigeria escaped custody after being arrested in the country’s capital, police acknowledged Tuesday – an embarrassment for a nation struggling to contain increasingly bloody sectarian attacks by a radical Islamist sect.
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Authorities said Kabiru Sokoto planned the bombing that killed 38 people at St. Theresa Catholic Church in Madalla, just outside Nigeria’s capital Abuja. But his arrest at the mansion of a state governor in Abuja, and subsequent escape, raised more questions about the government’s ability to stop the radical sect, known as Boko Haram, which claimed responsibility for the church attack.
Federal police spokesman Olusola Amore said in statement that a local commissioner ordered Sokoto transferred to another police station in Abaji, just outside of Abuja and that the policemen escorting him were attacked by suspected sect gang members who freed him.
Commanders have suspended the local police commissioner and are investigating his actions, as well as those of the officers guarding Sokoto, Amore said.
Amore did not say whether there were injuries suffered in the attack. He could not be immediately reached for comment.
The statement did not address Sokoto’s arrest occurring at the official compound of the Borno state governor in Abuja as widely reported in the media. Borno state, in Nigeria’s arid and dusty northeast, is Boko Haram’s spiritual home.
The Christmas Day bombing targeted target worshippers at a Catholic church as they were leaving Mass, witnesses said. It was one of several attacks that day that killed at least 42 people, drawing worldwide criticism and new attention to 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 at least 510 killings last year alone, according to an Associated Press count.
So far this year, the group, that has warned it will kill Christians living in Nigeria’s predominantly Muslim north, has been blamed for at least 74 killings. That has further inflamed religious and ethnic tensions in Nigeria, which has seen ethnic violence kill thousands in recent years.
Boko Haram also claimed responsibility an August suicide car bombing that targeted the U.N. headquarters in the capital, killing 25 people and wounding more than 100.
In a video released last week, Imam Abubakar Shekau a Boko Haram leader, said the government could not handle attacks by the group.
Though President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from southern Nigeria, has declared emergency rule in some regions, the sect is blamed for almost daily attacks.
Jonathan has said he believes the sect has infiltrated security agencies and government offices in the country, though he has offered no evidence to back up the claim.
On Tuesday, authorities blamed Boko Haram gunmen for killing seven people in three separate attacks. Gunmen shot dead two soldiers distributing food to other service members, Borno state police commissioner Simeone Midenda said.
Two others were killed Monday when gunmen invaded their homes, military field operation officer Col. Victor Ebhaleme said. In Damaturu in nearby Yobe state, gunmen from the sect shot and killed three more people from Chad on Monday, Yobe state police chief Tanko Lawan said.