PRESS ASSOCIATION -- A car bomb exploded at the main United Nations' building in Nigeria's capital Abuja today, killing at least 18 people in one of the deadliest assaults on the international body in a decade.
A radical Muslim sect blamed for a series of attacks in the country admitted the attack - a major escalation of their sectarian fight against Nigeria's weak central government.
The brazen assault in a neighbourhood surrounded by heavily fortified diplomatic posts represented the first suicide attack to target foreigners in oil-rich Nigeria, where locals already live in fear of the radical Boko Haram sect. The group, which has reported links to al Qaida, wants to implement a strict version of Shariah law in the nation and is vehemently opposed to Western education and culture.
"It is an attack on the global community," said Viola Onwuliri, a junior Nigerian foreign minister, as she looked at the bomb site.
A sedan laded with explosives crashed through two gates at the exit of the United Nations compound this morning as guards tried in vain to stop it, witnesses said.
The suicide bomber inside drove the car through the glass front of the main reception area of the building and detonated the explosives, inflicting the most damage possible, a spokesman for the Nigerian National Emergency Management Agency said.
"I saw scattered bodies," said Michael Ofilaje, a UNICEF worker at the four-story building, which he said shook with the explosion. "Many people are dead."
At least 18 people died in the attack. Nigerian Health Minister Mohammad Ali Pate made a public appeal for blood donations, saying there were at least 60 injured people alone at the nearby National Hospital.
The headquarters, known as UN House, had offices for about 400 employees working for 26 UN humanitarian and development agencies.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the car bombing "an assault on those who devote their lives to helping others.
"We condemn this terrible act, utterly," Ban said. "We do not yet have precise casualty figures but they are likely to be considerable. A number of people are dead; many more are wounded."
The attack was also condemned by leaders around the world and members of the UN Security Council who individually deplored the targeting of the UN at an open meeting on UN peacekeeping.
US President Barack Obama called the attack "horrific and cowardly" and expressed strong support for the UN's work.
"The people who serve the United Nations do so with a simple purpose: to try to improve the lives of their neighbours and promote the values on which the UN was founded - dignity, freedom, security, and peace," Obama said in a statement. "An attack on Nigerian and international public servants demonstrates the bankruptcy of the ideology that led to this heinous action."