ABUJA, Nigeria — A car laden with explosives rammed through two gates and blew up at the United Nations‘ offices in Nigeria’s capital Friday, killing at least 16 people and shattering part of the concrete structure. A radical Muslim sect blamed for a series of assassinations and bombings in the country claimed responsibility for the attack.
The brazen attack, carried out as the four-story U.N. offices teemed with staff, comes as Africa’s most populous nation faces the growing threat of both homegrown and international terrorism. The radical sect known locally as Boko Haram from northeast Nigeria have carried out attacks in the country’s capital, though never on a foreign target.
U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said: “We do not have any confirmation as yet who was responsible.” However, a spokesman for Boko Haram claimed the attack in a conversation with the BBC’s Hausa language shortwave radio service, which is widely trusted and listened to throughout Nigeria’s Muslim north. The sect, with reported links to al Qaeda, has made such claims before to the service.
Boko Haram, whose name means “Western education is sacrilege,” wants to implement a strict version of Shariah law in the nation and is vehemently opposed to Western education and culture.
The attack Friday morning mirrored others carried out recently by the group. Witnesses told the Associated Press that a sedan rammed through two separate gates at the U.N. compound as guards tried to stop the vehicle. The suicide bomber inside crashed the car into the main reception area and detonated the explosives, inflicting the most damage possible, a spokesman for the Nigerian National Emergency Management Agency said.
“I saw scattered bodies,” said Michael Ofilaje, a UNICEF worker at the building, which he said shook with the explosion. “Many people are dead.”
The Nigerian Red Cross reported at least 16 people died in the attack, with at least 11 others injured, said Umar Mairiga, the organization’s disaster management director. Nigerian Health Minister Mohammad Ali Pate made a public appeal for blood donation on the widely listened-to BBC Hausa language service, saying there were at least 60 injured people at the National Hospital in Abuja.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called it “an assault on those who devote their lives to helping others.”
The buildings, known as U.N. House, had offices for about 400 employees working for 26 U.N. humanitarian and development agencies. Authorities were still trying to account for everyone in the building at the time of the blast.
“We condemn this terrible act, utterly,” secretary-general Ban told reporters at U.N. headquarters. “We do not yet have precise casualty figures but they are likely to be considerable. A number of people are dead; many more are wounded.”
The building, located in the same neighborhood as the U.S. embassy and other diplomatic posts in Abuja, houses offices of a number of U.N. agencies including the U.N. Development Program, UNICEF and the U.N. Population Fund.
The attack was the most deadly on the United Nations since 17 U.N. civilian staff members were killed along with dozens of others in two terrorist car bombings that targeted U.N. and other premises in Algiers on Dec. 11, 2007. It came just days after the U.N. marked the eighth anniversary of the Aug. 19, 2003 bombing of U.N. headquarters in Baghdad that killed 15 U.N. staff including top envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello and seven others.
The explosion punched a huge hole in the building. Workers brought three large cranes to the site within hours of the attack, trying to pull away the concrete and rubble to find survivors. Others at the site stood around, stunned, as medical workers began carrying out what appeared to be the dead.
“This is getting out of hand,” said a U.N. staffer who identified himself as Bodunrin. “If they can get into the U.N. House, they can reach anywhere.”
Ali Tikko, who was in a building 100 yards (meters) from the site of the blast when it occurred said, “I heard one big boom.”