Abuja, Nigeria—A bomb struck the United Nations building in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, U.N. and Nigerian security officials said Friday, following multiple threats against the agency.
A security official in Abuja also confirmed the attack on the U.N. building, and said it was likely a car or truck bomb. The number of casualties wasn’t immediately known.
A staff member at the U.N.’s office in Lagos said the blast occurred on the wing that houses the United Nations Children’s Fund, or Unicef.
U.N. staff in Abuja are “busy evacuating casualties, but what type of explosion it was and how it happened, we still don’t know,” said Ramesh Singh, a U.N. security officer in Lagos.
Witnesses said they saw a car driving very quickly toward the U.N. building moments before the blast.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon “utterly” condemned “this terrible act” and has dispatched the deputy secretary-general to Nigeria.
“We do not yet have precise casualty figures but they are likely to be considerable,” Mr. Ban said in a statement from New York. “A number of people are dead; many more are wounded.”
The secretary-general said the buildings housed 26 U.N. humanitarian and development agencies. “This was an assault on those who devote their lives to helping others,” he said.
Mr. Ban said he has sent Deputy U.N. Secretary General Asha Rose-Migiro and the U.N.’s security chief to Abuja. “I am mobilizing the U.N. system to respond to this emergency,” he said. Mr. Ban said he would call Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan later in the day.
In an interview with British Broadcasting Corp. television, Nigeria’s minister of state for foreign affairs, Viola Onwuliri, called the blast “act of international terrorism.”
She didn’t accuse any specific groups for the attack, but told the BBC that this “act carried out against the international community will be thoroughly investigated and [the perpetrators] brought to justice.”
Witnesses said emergency crews were searching for victims in the wreckage after what appeared to be a suicide bomber rammed his vehicle into the U.N. compound.
“We saw that someone had driven into the gate with a bomb,” said a man named Dioka, a staff member of the U.N. Development Program in Abuja, who gave his first name only. “People [are] still sifting through the rubble to see who survived and who didn’t.”
An official at the Federal Hospital in Abuja said that casualty figures “haven’t yet been ascertained,” but noted that several bodies had been taken to the morgue and several to emergency operating rooms. The official said the hospital urgently needed blood donations.
A spokeswoman at the nearby U.S. embassy in Abuja said that a vehicle drove through “the exit gate of the U.N. building, over speed bumps and into the lobby of the building before detonating the bomb.” At least one portion of the building has significant damage, the spokeswoman said. The number of casualties remained unclear, and the spokeswoman said that as of now there were no U.S. citizens among the casualties.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for Friday’s blast.
Nigeria has been grappling with an Islamic militancy at home, and there has been speculation that these fighters may also be seeking links with foreign terror groups.
On Christmas day 2009, a 23-year-old Nigerian man attempted to ignite explosives concealed in his underwear on a Northwest Airlines flight to Detroit. He later claimed he had been trained by al Qaeda outside Nigeria.
More recently, Nigerian security agencies have been struggling to check the spread of a radical Islamist group, Boko Haram, after a spate of deadly bombings signaled the group’s ambitions to shed its roots as an isolated force in the country’s north.
In June, police attributed two attacks in Maiduguri—a city in Nigeria’s north—to Boko Haram. A bombing at a Maiduguri beer garden killed 25 people, and another attack killed three more.
Security officials say that while some members of Boko Haram may have received training in nearby Niger or Chad, there aren’t yet definitive ties to foreign terrorist groups. The group isn’t known to have previously attacked foreign targets.
Security agencies became aware of Boko Haram when its leaders began preaching extremist rhetoric in the mid-2000s. The homegrown group gained additional supporters after Nigerian police killed several hundred members in a 2009 crackdown. Its then-leader, Mohamed Yusuf, was killed by police during the crackdown while in custody.
Boko Haram is just one of Nigeria’s militant groups. Last October, 12 people were killed in Abuja when two car bombs were detonated during celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of Nigeria’s independence from Britain. The next day, Henry Okah, a former leader of the militant Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND, was arrested in Johannesburg and charged by South African authorities with masterminding the attacks.
He is set to face trial in January at South Africa’s high court, where prosecutors hope to prove that he orchestrated the attacks from exile in South Africa, and that their intended target was Nigeria’s president, Mr. Jonathan.
Mr. Okah, 46, denies being involved in the attacks and says he is no longer a leader of MEND, a group that has claimed responsibility for many attacks against oil companies operating in the Niger delta.
Beyond Nigeria, the largely lawless east African country of Somalia has been fertile ground for planning attacks against foreign targets. In July 2010, at least 79 people were killed in bomb blasts at an Ethiopian restaurant and popular bar in the Ugandan capital, Kampala. The suspected mastermind, a member of the Somali militant group al Shabaab, told authorities he targeted Americans for their government’s involvement in Somalia. At least 11 foreigners and one American were among those killed.
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