A FRESH wave of violence against churchgoers in Nigeria has left at least 27 people dead and heightened fears over security in Africa's most populous country.
The religiously motivated massacres -- three since last Thursday -- targeted Christians in Mubi and Gombe, towns in the north-east where a state of emergency was declared by President Goodluck Jonathan last week. Some 17 other deaths have been reported in other regions .
There is growing concern that the government's inability to tackle the rising levels of sectarian violence, blamed on radical Islamic group Boko Haram, may result in hundreds of people fleeing their homes.
The group is now carrying out weekly attacks on churches and police stations in northern and central areas.
Islamic clerics who speak out against the violence have been assassinated.
Last year saw an upsurge in Boko Haram's bloody activities, with some 550 killed, culminating in a co-ordinated bombing campaign on Christmas Day across Nigeria, which left 39 dead and dozens wounded, including at a church near the capital, Abuja.
The Gombe attack took place during a church service on Thursday and left six worshippers dead. The following day gunmen opened fire on Christians who had gathered in Mubi to mourn the deaths of three people killed the previous night.
A Red Cross official said: "On Friday, as people gathered to mourn the deaths, the gunmen, believed to be the same attackers, killed 18 people, totalling 21."
The Mubi shooting came as Boko Haram members attacked a beauty salon and fought government forces in other regions on Friday night.
On the same night, a Christian couple were shot dead in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state and the focus of Boko Haram's violence over the past 18 months.
Mubi is in Adamawa state, just south of Borno, where Boko Haram was formed in 2002 to promote a form of Islam which makes it "haram", or forbidden, for Muslims to take part in any political or social activity associated with western society, including non-Islamic education, voting in elections and wearing shirts and trousers.
The group, suspected of having support from outside Nigeria, was blamed for the country's first suicide bomb attack last August, which left 24 dead at a UN compound.
The Red Cross official said members of the predominantly Christian Igbo community were fleeing the north-east. A Nigerian newspaper published a warning from Boko Haram last week that Christians had three days to leave majority-Muslim areas or be killed.
Meanwhile, the troubled country is also to be hit with a nationwide strike tomorrow to protest the scrapping of fuel subsidies that more than doubled gasoline prices.
Trade unions called an indefinite strike and threatened to shut down ports, fuel stations, banks and oil operations if the government fails to restore the subsidies.