UPDATE 1-Nigerian Christmas bomb death toll rises to 37

Fri Dec 30, 2011 4:01pm EST

* Boko Haram is Nigeria's top security headache

* Church bombs may be aimed at igniting sectarian conflict

* President Jonathan pledges to fight group (Adds Jonathan statement, violence in Maiduguri)

ABUJA, Dec 30 (Reuters) - The death toll from a bomb attack on a church just outside Nigeria's capital Abuja on Christmas Day has risen to 37, with 57 people wounded, a source at the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) said on Friday.

The bombing at St. Theresa's Catholic church in Madalla on Abuja's outskirts during a packed Christmas mass was the deadliest of a series of Christmas attacks on Nigerian churches and other targets by the militant Islamist sect Boko Haram.

"As of just now, the latest death toll from the bombing of St. Theresa's church is at 37. Wounded, we have 57," a senior NEMA official said. The initial death toll had been 27.

The official asked not to be identified because the victims were now in the hands of hospitals and morgues.

President Goodluck Jonathan's office put out a statement late on Friday pledging that "the government will fight Boko Haram, the group of evil-minded people who want to cause anarchy, to the end".

Jonathan held talks on Friday with Mohame Bazoum, Deputy Prime Minister of Niger. Security officials suspect the countries' porous common border is a gathering point for militants, and that Boko Haram may have made contact there with al Qaeda's north African wing.

"The perpetrators pass through borders at will and we have to ensure that there are no safe havens for them in the sub-region," Jonathan said.

He had summoned his security chiefs for an emergency meeting on Thursday to discuss the growing Islamist militant threat and how to deal with it.

National Security Adviser General Owoye Andrew Azazi told Reuters that Nigerian security services were considering making contact with moderate members of Boko Haram via "back channels", even though explicit talks are officially ruled out.

EXPLOSIONS, SHOOTINGS IN NORTHEAST

This year was the second in a row that Boko Haram has attacked churches at Christmas. Its strikes are becoming deadlier and more sophisticated, and suggest that it is trying to ignite sectarian strife in a country historically prone to conflicts between a largely Muslim north and Christian south.

Three explosions struck the northeastern city of Maiduguri shortly after Muslim Friday prayers, but caused no casualties, the military said. In a separate incident, gunmen shot dead three members of a cleric's family.

Boko Haram, whose name means "Western education is sinful" in the northern Hausa language, has been blamed for a campaign of shootings and bombings against security forces and authorities in the north.

Attacks in and around the capital - including one on the U.N. headquarters in August that killed at least 24 people - suggest the group is trying to raise its profile and radiate out from its heartland in the northeast.

On Tuesday night, unidentified attackers threw a homemade bomb into an Islamic school in the southern Delta state, an apparent sectarian reprisal that wounded seven people, six of them young children.

On Wednesday night, an explosion in a local bar in the northern city of Gombe wounded one person, police said. (Reporting by Tim Cocks; Editing by xxx)

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