ABUJA - Investigators sifted through the wreckage of a bomb blast which claimed 21 lives in a shopping centre in the capital Abuja on Thursday as shoppers spoke of their shock in a city gripped by fear over a campaign of violence by Boko Haram Islamists.
Wednesday's blast shook the crowded downtown Emab Plaza during the afternoon rush as shoppers were buying groceries an hour ahead of the country's World Cup match against Argentina.
Dozens of soldiers and police guarded the scene, with the main road running past the plaza closed off, traders denied access to their shops and the burnt out shells of cars littering the blast zone.
Shellshocked shopkeepers and witnesses swapped stories of near misses as they returned to the scene.
"I don't believe only 21 people died yesterday because the bomb exploded shortly after I left the spot. I ran after a customer who was at that gate to give him his phone which he forgot in our shop," said trader Suleiman Mohammed.
"I saw a large crowd of people there. The bomb exploded before I got back to the shop." Police and the country's National Information Centre said on Wednesday one suspect had been arrested after the explosion, while another was shot dead by troops as he tried to escape on a motorbike.
The blast, at the entrance to the mall, was powerful enough to blow out windows in buildings on the opposite side of the street, an AFP correspondent on the scene said.
Dismembered body parts
The area, sandwiched between two other shopping centres and one of the busiest in central Abuja, was littered with body parts in the immediate aftermath and soaked in pools of congealed blood.
"I saw a woman who almost (went) mad yesterday looking for her husband. According to her, she left her husband parked in his car waiting at that gate while she stepped into the plaza to buy something," Bisi Adeoye, another trader, told AFP.
"She had not bought anything when the incident happened. Nobody knows what happened to the man now." Fellow shopkeeper Osaretin Odafe spoke of seeing "many bodies dismembered".
Local media said Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan had cancelled plans to attend an African Union summit in Equatorial Guinea, and had instead returned to lead the response to the crisis, although AFP was unable immediately to confirm the reports.
Boko Haram, which sparked worldwide outrage by kidnapping more than 200 schoolgirls in April, has attacked Nigeria's capital twice in the last 10 weeks.
A car bombing killed 75 people at the Nyanya bus terminal on the outskirts of the city on April 14 while a copycat bombing at the same spot on May 1 left 19 people dead.
The security services put the capital under lockdown following the second explosion as Abuja prepared to host a World Economic Forum summit on Africa in early May.
While the forum went off without a hitch, a Boko Haram attack in the heart of the capital less than two months on will raise fresh doubts about Nigeria's capacity to contain the group's worsening insurgency.