Police in the Nigerian city of Bauchi said on Monday they had foiled a bomb attempt in a crowded church, days after clashes between Christian and Muslim youths killed at least 19 people.

The director of the Nigerian secret service in Bauchi said the device was brought into the city’s United Methodist Church during a packed Sunday service. The security forces were tipped off and bomb disposal experts were able to detonate it safely.

“The perpetrators of this act are terrorists. We have detonated the bomb. The impact would have been devastating,” State Security Service director Adeola Ajayi said.

Bauchi, the capital of Bauchi state, lies in north-central Nigeria about 120 km (75 miles) northeast of Jos, where more than 200 people have died in ethnic and religious clashes over the past month.

The tension is rooted in decades of resentment between indigenous groups, mostly Christian or animist, who are vying for control of fertile farmlands and for economic and political power with migrants and settlers from the Muslim north.

Thousands of people have died in religious violence in the “Middle Belt” just south of Bauchi over the past decade, but the use of bombs is a relatively new development. A series of explosions rocked Jos during Christmas Eve celebrations, triggering the clashes that are still rumbling on.

The death toll from fighting last week between gangs of Christian and Muslim students in Bauchi, triggered by a dispute over a game of snooker, rose to at least 19 over the weekend as police found more bodies.

Several houses and places of worship were torched in the clashes, which began early last Thursday, leading the police to call in reinforcements from the northern states of Gombe and Kano and the local government to impose a dusk-to-dawn curfew.

The unrest is central Nigeria is largely contained within one region and does not, on its own, risk derailing presidential, parliamentary and state elections in April.

But it is likely to escalate in the run-up to the polls and gives President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration another security challenge on top of attacks by a radical Islamic sect in the remote northeast and the threat of renewed violence in the oil-producing Niger Delta, on Nigeria’s southern coast.

The campaign of violence by the Boko Haram sect in the northeast has taken on an increasingly political tone.

Suspected sect members shot dead a leading candidate for governor of the northeastern state of Borno and six others on Friday, raising fears the state government may have to declare a state of emergency before the April polls.

Two more suspected Boko Haram followers were shot dead by police on Sunday in Borno’s capital Maiduguri while attempting to flee after killing a policeman, officers said.

A police spokesman in the city said 19 people had been arrested in connection with Friday’s killings and that additional security measures had been put in place.


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