Two suicide bombers, at least one of them a woman, blew themselves up on Tuesday at a crowded market in this northeast Nigerian city, killing dozens of shoppers and merchants, including some who witnesses said were decapitated by the explosions.
Suspicion immediately fell on Boko Haram, the Islamist insurgent group that was once headquartered here and has increasingly used female suicide bombers in recent months. Whether they are volunteers or are coerced is unclear.
It was the first time in more than four months that Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State, had been assaulted by suicide attackers. They targeted the same location, known as Monday Market, that was ravaged by a suspected member of Boko Haram in a car bombing in July.
“It is a serious crime against humanity being perpetrated by few extremists under the guise of religion,” said Kashim Shettima, the Borno governor, who visited some of the wounded victims at State Specialists Hospital.
Dr. Salisu Kwaya Bura, the chief medical director of the Borno State Hospital Management Board, told reporters that at least 24 bodies had been pulled from the wreckage and that at least 54 people had been wounded. Some Nigerian news accounts said that as many as 60 people may have been killed.
Witnesses said heads and other body parts were strewn about, making a precise tally difficult. They said the victims included shoppers, grocery sellers, wheelbarrow pushers and beggars.
There were conflicting accounts about whether one or both of the bombers were women. But a number of witnesses said they had seen two women.
Veronica Samuel, a merchant, said the first bomber, whom she described as a woman in her 20s feigning mental illness, had detonated explosives strapped to her back at about 11 a.m., killing four others. That blast attracted a crowd, which was targeted by the second bomber 10 minutes later.
Ahmadu Musa, a bystander who witnessed the second blast, said it “went off when sympathizers gathered to assist those that were caught in the first one.”
Routed from their Maiduguri headquarters by Nigerian forces in bloody fighting five years ago, Boko Haram rebels have violently exerted control over other territories in the restive northeast, which remains under a state of emergency.