File photo - Clergymen gather around the coffins of the victims of the Christmas day bombing at St Theresa Catholic Church Madalla, during a mass funeral for the victims, outside Nigeria's capital Abuja. Photo: REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

Lagos -

Gunmen stormed an evangelical church in central Nigeria, cut the electricity and opened fire once the building was plunged into darkness, killing 19 people, including the pastor, officials said Tuesday.

Residents in the town of Okene in Kogi state, where the church was attacked late Monday, reported fresh gun battles on a main commercial street on Tuesday, but the circumstances were not immediately clear.

Officials said it was too early to say who carried out the church raids, but the radical Islamist group Boko Haram has repeatedly targeted Christians during worship in a series of gun and suicide bomb attacks.

Kogi, southwest of the capital Abuja, has not been hit particularly hard by the Islamists, although members of the group are believed to have come from the ethnically diverse area.

In mid-July, a bomb went off near another church in Okene, but caused no casualties, while in April, the military said it had discovered a Boko Haram bomb making factory in Kogi, in the town of Ogaminana.

The Deeper Life Church in Okene was attacked by “unknown gunmen” at roughly 8:20 pm on Monday, said Lt. Col. Gabriel Olorunyomi, head of a military task force in Kogi.

Before firing on worshippers who had come for a regular Monday evening service, two of the three assailants knocked out the building's generator, state police spokesman Simon Ile told AFP.

When military personnel arrived at the scene, they “saw 15

people dead, including the pastor,” said Olorunyomi, who added that four more people later died from their wounds. Several others were injured.

Ile told AFP there were no early indications regarding the culprits.

“They entered the church...they just opened fire and they went away. We don't know their motives yet,” he said.

Okene residents said that heavily armed gunmen attacked a commercial street in the town on Tuesday, sparking a gunfight with troops.

“The soldiers succeeded in killing two of the gunmen and then the rest fled,” said Abdul Omeiza, who lives near the street where several banks are located.

Ile told AFP that he had heard reports of “a confrontation that is happening right now,” but insisted he had no details and the military was not available to comment. It was not clear if latest violence was linked to the church raid.

Boko Haram, which has said it wants to create an Islamic state in northern Nigeria, has increasingly attacked Christians but Muslims have also often been among the group's victims.

The group has killed more than 1,000 people since mid-2009 in a range of attacks, including the United Nations building in the capital Abuja.

President Goodluck Jonathan said in June that Boko Haram was seeking to incite a religious crisis by attacking churches in an attempt to destabilise the government.

Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation and largest oil producer, is roughly divided between a mainly Muslim north and predominately Christian south.

In a video posted to YouTube on Saturday, the suspected leader of Boko Haram criticised Jonathan as well as US President Barack Obama over Washington's decision to label him a “global terrorist”.

It was unclear when the video was made, but it marked the first time Abubakar Shekau publicly addressed the terrorist designation slapped on him by the United States in June.

In addition to Shekau, the US State Department also announced the designations for Abubakar Adam Kambar and Khalid al-Barnawi. Kambar and Barnawi were said to be linked to Boko Haram and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Al-Qaeda's north African branch.

Some US lawmakers and the leader of Nigeria's main Christian body have been pushing Obama's administration to label Boko Haram as a whole a terrorist organisation. - Sapa-AFP