By Camillus Eboh and Felix Onuah
ABUJA (Reuters) - Nigeria's main opposition leader accused the government of incompetence on Monday after Islamist militants killed more than two dozen people in Christmas Day attacks on churches and other targets.
Muhammadu Buhari, a northerner and former military ruler who lost a presidential election in April to incumbent Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian southerner, told a Nigerian daily that the government was slow to respond and had shown indifference to the bombings.
The attacks, described by the country's top broadsheet daily Thisday as "Nigeria's blackest Christmas ever," risk reopening old wounds and reviving tit-for-tat sectarian violence between the mostly Muslim north and largely Christian south, which has claimed thousands of lives in the past decade.
The Boko Haram Islamist sect, which aims to impose sharia, Islamic law, across Africa's most populous country, claimed responsibility for three church bombings, the second Christmas in a row it has caused carnage at Christian houses of worship.
The most deadly attack killed at least 27 people in the St Theresa Catholic church in Madalla, a town on the edge of the capital, and devastated surrounding buildings and cars.
Security forces also blamed the sect for two explosions in the north targeting their facilities. Officials have confirmed 32 people died in the wave of attacks across Nigeria, though local media have put the number higher.
But the church bombs are more worrying because they raise fears that Boko Haram is trying to ignite a sectarian civil war in a country split evenly between Christians and Muslims, who for the most part co-exist in peace.
"How on earth would the Vatican and the British authorities speak before the Nigerian government on attacks within Nigeria that have led to the deaths of our citizens?" Buhari said in the statement published by Punch newspaper on Monday.
"This is clearly a failure of leadership at a time the government needs to assure the people of the capacity to guarantee the safety of lives and property."
At a church service in the St Theresa church to mourn the dead there less than a day earlier, a priest in white and red robes conducted a prayers while around 200 mourners sighed, chanted and sang solemnly. Some wept.
The burnt out cars that had littered the scene the day before had been removed and replaced by half a dozen military jeeps. Ten 10 armed soldiers dismounted from each of them to cloak the church in a heavy security presence.
"I've never cried before, but yesterday, I cried," St. Theresa's priest, Father Isaac Achi, said. "This morning, I cried, but with all of you around today, I'll not cry again. Yesterday more than 40 army men protected me while I slept."
Buhari said the government needed to do more than spend more on security to deal with the problem, echoing concerns by analysts that more needs to be done to address the sense of alienation in the poorer north of Nigeria that breeds militancy.
Jonathan called the attacks "unfortunate" but said Boko Haram would "not be (around) for ever. It will end one day," a response that some Nigerians found short-sighted.
He often declines to comment on Boko Haram attacks at all, or when he does describes it as a "temporary" problem that will blow over in time.
A few hours after Sunday's bomb in Madalla, blasts were reported at the Mountain of Fire and Miracles Church in the central, ethnically and religiously mixed town of Jos, and at a church in Gadaka in the northern state of Yobe. Residents said many were wounded in Gadaka.
A suicide bomber killed four officials at the State Security Service in one of the other attacks in the northeastern town of Damaturu, police said. Residents heard two loud explosions and gunfire in the town.
The attacks, which came a few days after clashes between security forces and Boko Haram killed at least 68 people, and the surge in violence suggested increasing evidence of coordination and strategy by the group.
National Security Adviser General Owoye Azazi said in the church attacks were premeditated but urged Nigerians to go about their business as usual, while remaining vigilant.
"This is not a fight between security forces and some dissident elements. It is a conflict between some misguided extremists in our midst and the rest of society," he said.
Benedict condemned the attacks as an "absurd gesture" and prayed that "the hands of the violent be stopped."
The pope, speaking from his window overlooking St Peter's Square in Rome, said such violence brought only pain, destruction and death.
The United Nations, the European Union and the United States condemned the bombings which they described as terrorist attacks, pledging to help Nigerian authorities in the fight against extremists.
(Additional reporting by Tim Cocks in Lagos, Tife Owolabi and Buhari Bello in Jos, Mike Oboh in Kano, a correspondent in Maiduguri and Philip Pullella in Vatican City; Writing by Tim Cocks and Bate Felix; Editing by Mark Heinrich)