ABUJA, (Reuters) – A car bomb ripped through the United Nations’ headquarters in the Nigerian capital of Abuja yesterday, killing at least 18 people, in an attack reminiscent of a June blast claimed by a local radical Islamist group.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the final casualty toll was likely to be considerable, and Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan ordered tighter security around the capital after what he called a “most despicable assault”.
Security sources and witnesses said the car rammed into the building and blew up, badly damaging parts of an office complex where close to 400 people normally work for U.N. agencies. “We do not yet have precise casualty figures but they are likely to be considerable,” Ban said, adding that the building housed 26 U.N. humanitarian and development agencies.
“This was an assault on those who devote their lives to helping others,” Ban said in a statement to reporters. “We condemn this terrible act, utterly.”
Body parts were strewn on the ground as emergency workers, soldiers and police swarmed around the building, cordoned roads and rushed the wounded to hospital.
“Different people have been taken to different hospitals so we’re not sure of casualty figures. It is at least 18,” said Mike Zuokumor, Abuja police commissioner.
No one claimed responsibility for the attack. However, one Abuja-based security source suspected the Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram, whose strikes have been growing in intensity and spreading further afield, or al Qaeda’s North African arm.
“This is very likely the work of Boko Haram and, or, AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) and is a serious escalation in the security situation in Nigeria,” the security source said. “This is the worst thing that could have happened.”
In yesterday’s attack the car slammed through security gates of the U.N. complex, crashed into the basement and exploded, sending vehicles flying and setting the building ablaze. “When the car got inside it went straight to the basement and exploded, killing people in reception, right and left,” said Abuja resident James John, who saw the attack. “The entire building, from the ground floor to the topmost, was just fire and smoke. I saw six bodies been carried. I can’t believe it.”
“All the people in the basement were killed. Their bodies are littered all over the place,” said Ocilaje Michael, a U.N. employee at the complex.
The building was blackened from top to bottom. In places, walls were blown away and there were piles of debris.
Militant attacks in the oil-producing regions of southern Nigeria have subsided but the north has been hit by a round of bombings and killings by Islamist extremists.
Boko Haram, whose name translates from the local northern Hausa language as “Western education is sinful”, has been behind almost daily bombings and shootings, mostly targeting police in the northeast of Africa’s most populous nation