Discuss as:

Nigeria church attack kills 19

Gunmen killed 19 people when they fired on worshipers at a church in Nigeria's central Kogi state during a Monday evening service, police said on Tuesday, the BBC reported.

"A group of three unidentified gunmen stormed the Deeper Life Church in Okene and opened fire on them, killing 16," Simeon Ille, spokesman for the Kogi state police, told Reuters by phone. The BBC reported that 19 people had been killed.

According to the BBC, the pastor was among those killed. The gunmen fired Kalashnikov assault rifles.

A witness, who asked not to be identified for fear of being targeted, said around 10 gunmen blocked off the exits to the church before shooting the trapped people inside.

Ille said security forces last month prevented a suspected suicide bomber from detonating an explosive at a different church in Okene, a town around 140 miles south of the capital Abuja. The suspected would-be bomber fled, he said.

Islamist sect Boko Haram has attacked several churches this year in Nigeria but Monday's attack was farther south than the group's usual targets.

In February, Boko Haram claimed a prison break in Kogi state when 119 prisoners were freed. The sect has carried out jail raids before and one of its key demands is the release of its imprisoned members.

The group's strikes are increasingly spreading across Nigeria, Africa's biggest oil producer. Cities across the north and in the capital Abuja have been hit in recent months by suicide bombers, never seen before last year in Nigeria.

The country's two-million-barrel-per-day crude oil export business in the southern coastal region has not been affected by the sect's violence.

The sect has killed hundreds this year in its insurgency against President Goodluck Jonathan's government. It wants to have an Islamic state inside Nigeria, a country of more than 160 million split roughly equally between Christians and Muslims.

The group, which is loosely based on Afghanistan's Taliban, usually target authority figures and places of worship to settle scores with people they say harmed their members.

Reuters contributed to this report.

More world stories from NBC News: