Gunmen attacked worship services at a university campus and a church in northern Nigeria, killing at least 21 people in co-ordinated assaults that saw Christians gunned down as they tried to flee, witnesses and officials said.

The deadlier attack targeted an old section of Bayero University's campus in the city of Kano where churches hold Sunday services, with gunmen killing at least 16 people and wounding at least 22 others, according to the Nigerian Red Cross.

A later attack in the northeast city of Maiduguri saw gunmen open fire at a Church of Christ in Nigeria chapel, killing five people, including a pastor preparing for communion, witnesses said.

No group immediately claimed responsibility, but the attacks bore similarities to others carried by a radical Islamist sect known as Boko Haram.

The Bayero University attack occurred around an old theatre and lecture halls where local churches hold services, Kano state police commissioner Ibrahim Idris said. The gunmen rode into the campus on motorcycles, then threw small explosives made out of soda cans around the area, Idris said.

Ambushed by gunmen

The worshippers ran out in an attempt to escape, only to be shot by the waiting gunmen, the commissioner said.

"By the time we responded, they entered [their] motorcycles and disappeared into the neighbourhood," the commissioner said.

After the attack, police and soldiers cordoned off the campus as gunfire echoed in the surrounding streets. Abubakar Jibril, a spokesman for Nigeria's National Emergency Management Agency, said security forces refused to allow rescuers to enter the campus. Soldiers also turned away journalists from the university.

The city of Maiduguri, the target of second attack, is where Boko Haram once had its main mosque.

 

'I am deeply saddened to see that Nigerians gathered to practise their faith have again become the target of terrorists.'— Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird

Witnesses who declined to give their names out of fear the sect would target them said the gunmen stormed into the service and began firing. Most escaped, though as people came out of hiding later they found the pastor dead in a pool of blood in the sanctuary, witnesses said. Four other worshippers died in the attack, they said.

Borno state police spokesman Samuel Tizhe later confirmed the attack took place and said officers would investigate.

Boko Haram is waging a growing sectarian battle with Nigeria's weak central government, using suicide car bombs and assault rifles in attacks across the country's predominantly Muslim north and around its capital, Abuja. Those killed have included Christians, Muslims and government officials. The sect has been blamed for killing more than 450 people this year alone, according to an Associated Press count.

Diplomats and military officials say Boko Haram has links with two other al-Qaeda-aligned terrorist groups in Africa. Members of the sect also reportedly have been spotted in northern Mali, an area where Tuareg rebels and hardline Islamists seized control over the past month.

Police stations attacked

In January, a co-ordinated assault on government buildings and other sites in Kano by Boko Haram killed at least 185 people. In the time since, the sect has been blamed for attacking police stations and carrying out smaller assaults in the city.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird extended his sympathies and condemned the attack on behalf of Canada.

"I am deeply saddened to see that Nigerians gathered to practise their faith have again become the target of terrorists," he said in a statement, which said the number of dead could be as high as 20.

"Canada urges all people in Nigeria to work with the Nigerian government to counter religious extremism and terrorism, and bring to justice those responsible for these reprehensible crimes."

The attackers targeted an old section of Bayero University's campus where religious groups use a theatre to hold worship services, Kano state police spokesman Ibrahim Idris said. The assault left many others seriously wounded, Idris said.