* Islamist group Boko Haram has targeted churches this year
* Sect has faced a military crackdown in the north
By Funon Inusa
BAUCHI, Nigeria, Sept 23 (Reuters) - A suicide car bomber blew himself up outside a Catholic church in northern Nigeria on Sunday, killing himself and at least two other people and wounding 46, police said.
Police cordoned off the area around St. John’s church after the blast, which caused minimal damage to the building but killed at least two people in a market area of Bauchi city.
A Reuters journalist saw emergency services bring out three bodies in the area, called Wunti, and police identified one as the occupant of the car that blew up.
Several wounded were being taken out on stretchers.
“I was just coming out on my way to church and I saw a car speeding towards the church entrance. It hit the fence and there was a huge ‘bang’ and pieces of metal flew into the air,” Manan Yara, a housewife who lives opposite the church, told Reuters.
“I thank God I‘m still alive,” she said, her hands shaking.
Bauchi police spokesman Hassan Mohammed said the bomber, plus a woman and a child were killed, and 46 other people got various injuries, including two policemen protecting the church.
He added that it would have been a worse had the bomber managed to enter the building.
“When the suicide bomber targeted the church he was prevented by the measures put in place and instead he detonated his explosives in the parking lot,” he said.
National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) spokesman Yushua Shuaib also confirmed the death toll, and said that of the injured some 22 were receiving treatment in hospital.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility. Islamist sect Boko Haram has claimed several attacks on churches and other Christian gatherings this year, part of wider efforts to destabilise President Goodluck Jonathan’s government.
Boko Haram has killed hundreds of people since 2009 in attacks on security forces, government offices and churches, and three of its senior members have been designated as ‘terrorists’ by the United States.
The sect, which says it wants to revive an ancient Islamic caliphate in northern Nigeria that would practice strict Sharia law, has become the number one security threat to Africa’s top oil producer, replacing militancy in the oil-rich southeast.
A military crackdown appears to have weakened Boko Haram, whose militants have not reproduced the kind of large-scale, coordinated attacks they carried out earlier this year. At least 186 people died in attacks across the city of Kano in January.
But almost daily shootings and bombings blamed on the Islamists have continued.
The militants have made no public pronouncements since security forces said they killed their spokesman Abu Qaqa in a gun battle in Kano last Sunday.
Security analysts say Boko Haram has forged links with other Jihadist movements expanding across West Africa, such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb, an Algerian-born outfit based in northern Mali.
But apart from an attack on the U.N. headquarters in the capital Abuja last August, Boko Haram’s focus has been mainly on local targets.