It was all despair in Kano yesterday after terrorists attacked the offices of two major mobile phone operators - Airtel and MTN - in the city 72 hours ahead of Christmas.
Two persons, both of them suspected suicide bombers, were killed in the blasts, a reminder of last year’s Christmas Day terror attack on St Theresa’s Catholic Church, Madallah, Niger State, in which at least 44 worshippers perished.
As a result of the attacks, security agents have been placed on a fresh alert nation-wide.
Particular attention is being given to Borno, Yobe, Kano, Plateau, Kaduna and Bauchi States which have been the major battle fields of the Islamist sect, Boko Haram in the outgoing year.
It was also gathered that all armed forces personnel have been restricted to the barracks.
The civilians living in all barracks and other military formations are now being subjected to security watch.
Yesterday’s attacks were the latest in the wave of attacks on telecommunication facilities in the northern part of the country by terrorists.
According to an eyewitness account, the alleged suicide bomber at about 8 am at Mallam Kato Square, where the Airtel office was located attempted to park his vehicle on the premises in a manner that aroused suspicion.
Security operatives patrolling the area spotted him at once and shot him before he could smash the car into the building.
Moments after the suicide bomber was shot and killed, his car exploded, the impact of which damaged the company’s reception hall, as well as three vehicles parked at the premises.
More security officers were soon drafted to the premises. They cordoned off the area while business outlets in the area quickly shut down for the day.
News of the incident quickly spread, leading to panic among residents.
Security patrol was also increased with the aid of armoured personnel carriers. Check points were also set up in strategic parts of the metropolis particularly in Sabon Gari and on Burma Road.
In the other attack on MTN office close to the Post Office area, the alleged suicide bomber, riding on a motorbike, rammed his motorbike into the MTN fence, which exploded on impact, killing the suicide bomber.
Capt. Iweha Ikedichi, who speaks for the Joint Task Force (JTF) deployed in Kano to reduce the threat of the Islamic sect, Boko Haram confirmed the incidents.
The Airtel bomber rammed through the gate, detonating a bomb which injured an Airtel worker, Ikedichi said. The facility is located in a high-security area, less than 100 meters from the regional office of the Central Bank (CBN).
"The one who hit the Airtel office was shot by military men before the bomb exploded at the MTN office the car rammed into the fence but no civilians were killed," Ibrahim Idris, the chief of police in Kano, told Reuters. Both bombs went off.
A military source said one security guard was injured and has been taken to hospital.
Some Airtel users said that they could not make calls, suggesting that the attack may have affected the company’s switch station. An Airtel spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment.
About three kilometers away, the MTN bomber was stopped from entering the company’s premises by security officers who shot him at the gate, causing an explosion there, Ikedichi said.
The target was MTN’s switch station in Kano, said the company’s spokeswoman Funmilayo Omogbenigun. Switch stations control the regional mobile phone network and if they are seriously damaged, the entire network could go down.
Authorities suspect the Boko Haram sect for the attacks, said Ikedichi.
Eyewitnesses said the first suicide bomber dropped his Golf car at the Airtel office in Malam Kato Square, where the bomb explosion killed one security officer of the company and the bomber.
"The car hits the place at about 8a.m. on Saturday morning, although I don’t know if there were people inside the office but I can confirm to you that one security officer who was standing at the gate when the car came was dead," a source said.
Officials of the state fire service were called into action to extinguish the fire from spreading to the neighbouring business areas.
The second suicide bomber was said to have hit MTN office at Post Road, 30 minutes after the attack on Airtel’s office.
A staff of MTN in Kano, who witnessed the attack and does not want to be identified said: "It was an unsuccessful attack in our office. They wanted to penetrate the office but they could not and they detonated the bomb from the outside."
The National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), after mobilising response agencies to the scene of the early morning explosions in Kano, confirmed the "coordinated attacks by suicide bombers at the facilities of two telecom operators in separate locations in Kano Municipality."
A statement signed by NEMA’s Head of Public Relations, Mr Yushau A. Shuaib, explained that "the attacks, which took place this morning, were targeted at Airtel office around Mallam Kato Square old Parade Ground of Unknown Soldiers and MTN facility opposite Floor Mill, Malali Road, Kano."
"While securities have further been strengthened in the state, the areas of the attacks have been cordoned off," the statement added.
The group is held responsible for more than 770 deaths this year alone, according to figures compiled by The Associated Press.
Boko Haram’s campaign of bombings and shootings has targeted mosques, churches, schools, universities and government buildings. In September, the group broadened its scope by attacking mobile phone towers for the first time.
In September, a series of attacks damaged more than 31 towers operated by all the major mobile phone providers in the country. Other attacks have occurred since then, further straining the one link the country relies on for communication.
No one has yet claimed responsibility for the attacks although Boko Haram had threatened mobile phone companies earlier in the year, warning that they would be targeted for cooperating with the government to flush out its members.
Investigations revealed that the presidency has directed the armed forces, security agencies and the police to ensure a peaceful Christmas by putting suicide bombers at bay.
"All military formations, security agencies and the police have been directed to be on the alert to ensure a safe and blissful Christmas for all. The latest attacks on telecommunications facilities revealed a pattern by these suicide bombers in the past," a source said yesterday.
"They [terrorists] like striking after demobilising the communication facilities in their targeted areas.
"But the military and security agencies are a step ahead of these bombers. No military, police or security post will be left unmanned no matter how small it is."
The source added: "All civilians living in the barracks or military formations are under watch or strict surveillance.
"In fact, we are getting to a stage whereby only wives, children and limited number of relations of military personnel will be allowed to live in these barracks and they will be duly accredited.
"Already, movement into and out of barracks or military formations has been restricted or well- defined.
"Except on serious medical grounds, officers and men will not enjoy pass during the Christmas period. They are to remain on duty as part of the security alert nationwide."
Even before the attacks, security had been increased in all the major northern cities, although security experts say given the scale of Christian worship in Nigeria they cannot protect everyone.
Kano was the scene of Boko Haram’s deadliest attack which killed at least 186 people in January in coordinated bombings and shootings.
Armed police have been guarding major churches in Kano in the last one week and additional police checkpoints have been set up around the majority-Muslim city.
Police in Kano said during the week that their anti-terrorism squads have been searching houses and buildings they suspect to be hideouts of criminals and "terrorists".
Security experts say they believe Boko Haram is seeking to spark a religious conflict.
A French national was kidnapped in Katsina State last week by people France’s intelligence agency said were "an organised group linked to a terrorist activity".
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