In an attack Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has condemned as "unspeakable sacrilege," an early morning mass at St. Philip's Catholic Church in Ozubulu was turned into a bloody massacre on Sunday as gunmen entered the church and fatally shot at least 11 people and injured 18 others.
Some local outlets such as Vanguard report that "no fewer than 35 worshippers" were killed.
Anambra State Police said in a statement that they "will leave no stone unturned in fishing out the shooters" but were quick to point out that the massacre was not a terrorist attack. Instead, it was drug-related gang warfare.
"Intelligence report/preliminary investigation proved that it is a fight between the two individuals of the community living outside Nigeria," the statement said. "It is definitely not a terrorist attack in the mould of Boko Haram or fulani herdsmen attack. It is sacrilegious but for now, is still premature to disclose the identities, we will brief the public after investigation is concluded."
Anambra State Commissioner of Police, Garba Baba Umar further explained to Vanguard that International Police, Interpol, would be involved in the investigation. He said the gunmen were searching for a man who had funded the building of the church and when they did not find him, they unleashed their wrath on the parishioners.
"They came but did not get their target and they went to the church. We have not declared their target wanted because he is also a victim. He built a church for his people and that was where the killing took place," Umar said. "They were after him but ended up in the church. We strongly suspect that the killing is related to a drug cartel. Whatever the problem, they should have sorted themselves out there instead of coming to Anambra to wreak havoc. We will certainly involve Interpol in cracking this case and we have already swung into action."
According to the Vanguard, the gunmen arrived at the church in a Lexus SUV and one of them shot at close range an elderly man, identified as Pa Ikegwuonu. Pa is the father of Chief Aloysius Ikegwuonu, a businessman from Amakwa, who funded the building of the church. Ikegwuonu's wife was reportedly shot in her right arm and is recovering at a local hospital.
Multiple videos and images online show haunting images of the lifeless bodies of churchgoers piled in the back of a truck. A variety of sandals were also shown stuck to the blood-splattered floor of the church.
Parish priest Jude Onwuaso who fled for his life at the first sound of gunfire told the BBC that a "boy or man" entered the church and started shooting.
"After the first round, there was second round and I guess it was during the second round that people were shot dead. When I came back I discovered that some of my parishioners were dead, about five or six I saw shot dead bleeding. A lot of people were injured, some were shot in the stomach, some were shot in the head and some were shot in the hand," he said.
Charles Justice, who took his friends to the Nnamdi Azikiwe Teaching Hospital in Nnewi, told Premium Times that the attack on the church happened after the homily at 6 a.m. Mass.
"Those who died are mostly children and the elderly, I know about three children who were below five years that died in the shooting," Justice said.
Ogochukwu Maduka, a Lay Reader at the church, explained that when she first got to the church it was in darkness because there was no power.
"After much effort to get the generator to work failed, they had resort to using candles and rechargeable lamps," said Maduka, who was seated at the front of the church during the service.
"The holy Mass had proceeded as usual, after the first, second and gospel reading, and then the priest's homily, as we stood up for the proclamation of faith, there was a sound of gun like thunder from behind. There was chaos and panic and confusion. The priest ran away as the gunshots continued and I took cover under the seat," she said.
"When people started running around, the man began shooting upwards. Those mostly affected were those at the back of the church," Maduka added, explaining she counted about 15 dead bodies in the aftermath.
In a statement on the massacre, President Buhari said "there was no justification whatsoever to target church worshippers and kill them in cold blood."
"All Nigerians must rise up and speak with one voice against these remorseless evil men," he said.