UPDATE 1-Gunmen kill six in northeast Nigeria church attack

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KADUNA, Nigeria, Dec 25 (Reuters) - Gunmen killed six people

at a church in northeast Nigeria early on Tuesday, the third

year running that Christmas services have come under deadly

attack in the country, the military said.

The strike took place after a Christmas Eve midnight service

outside the town of Potiskum in northeastern Yobe state, where

Islamist sect Boko Haram has carried out several attacks this

year.

"Unknown gunmen attempted to attack Potiskum but were

repelled by the troops. While they were fleeing, they attacked a

church in a village known as Jiri," said military spokesman Eli

Lazarus, who confirmed that six people were killed.

Members of Boko Haram have killed hundreds in a campaign to

impose sharia law in northern Nigeria.

The group killed dozens in a series of bombings across

northern Nigeria on churches on Christmas Day last year,

mirroring similar attacks in 2010 which killed more than 40.

This year the police and army pledged to protect churches,

boosting security in major northern towns and cities and

restricting people's movement.

At least 2,800 people have died in fighting in the largely

Muslim north since Boko Haram launched an uprising against the

government in 2009, watchdog Human Rights Watch says.

Potiskum, which lies in Boko Haram's northeastern

stronghold, has been one of the areas worst affected by the

insurgency.

Security experts believe Boko Haram is targeting worshippers

to spark a religious conflict in a country of 160 million people

split roughly equally between Christians and Muslims.

Many churches in Nigeria's biggest northern city, Kano, and

elsewhere in the north were almost empty for Christmas Day

services on Tuesday, local residents said.

Two people were killed in separate attacks on Tuesday in

Kano, a police source said. He said gunmen riding motorcycles

killed the driver of a government worker and another civilian.

Pope Benedict used part of his Christmas message to the

world on Tuesday to highlight the need for reconciliation in

Nigeria, saying "savage acts of terrorism continue to reap

victims, particularly among Christians".

(Reporting by Isaac Abrak; Writing by Joe Brock; Editing by Tom

Pfeiffer)

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