Nigerian authorities, battling to stem an escalating Islamist insurgency, covered up a bomb attack in the financial capital Lagos by claiming a blast near a major fuel depot was an industrial accident, according to an AFP investigation.
The explosion ripped through an area of Nigeria's biggest city on June 25, just hours after a suspected Boko Haram car bombing in the administrative capital Abuja, which killed 21 people and stoked fresh fears that the group's deadly campaign was spreading.
The Lagos blast in the Apapa district, on a main road feeding Nigeria's busiest port and in an area housing most of the city's fuel depots, was blamed on a cooking gas cylinder which exploded, with no casualties.
But AFP has seen photographs of the scene showing a destroyed car plus damage to surrounding vehicles, which the British Army's former head of bomb disposal said left no doubt as to the cause.
"This was definitely an incident involving the use of high explosives," Bob Seddon, an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran and a specialist in improvised explosive devices (IEDs), told AFP in an email exchange after reviewing the images.
"The type of blast effects and fragmentation pattern you would get from a gas explosion are quite different," the former Royal Logistics Corps colonel said, assessing that 25-50 kilos (55-110 pounds) of improvised high explosive were used.
Senior foreign diplomats also indicated privately that the blast was deliberate, attributing the official denials to fears over the potential effects of a confirmed first attack on Lagos, which drives the country's economy.
- 'Militant attack' -
The first suggestions of an attack appeared on social networking sites after 8:30 pm (1930 GMT) on June 25 and in local media the following day but failed to gain wider attention because of government denials and the focus on the deadly Abuja bombing.
Flat denials or no comment from the government are not uncommon in Nigeria, particularly involving Boko Haram, whose five-year insurgency has intensified in the northeast and seen almost daily attacks.
But questions have lingered about the Apapa incident because Lagos, in the southwest of the country, has so far escaped the violence.
Lagos is home to some 20 million people as well as major overseas companies in key sectors such as oil and gas. The city is also seen as a gateway to trade in the wider west Africa region.
There has been no claim of responsibility and Lagos state police have launched an investigation.
Federal government spokesman Mike Omeri, who deals with homeland security issues, told AFP the probe would "look at all issues... whether it is IEDs, car bombings or accidents".
Political and security consultants Control Risks, which has an office in Lagos, said the Apapa blast was a bombing that killed at least four people, according to a briefing note seen by AFP that it sent to foreign business and government clients.
"Drawing on eyewitness sources, Control Risks assesses that the incident was a militant attack rather than an industrial accident," the group's senior West Africa analyst, Roddy Barclay, said in a separate interview.
- Increased security -
Since June 25, the Lagos state government has ordered tighter security at key fuel and infrastructure installations, and beefed up state hospitals' capacity to deal with mass casualty emergencies.
State health commissioner Jide Idris said measures included increasing blood stocks and buying new ambulances as well as putting all emergency units on stand-by.
But he maintained the measures were only because of the countrywide state of alert.
Seddon's analysis and Control Risks' assessment chimed with the accounts of seven eye-witnesses interviewed by AFP, who all said independently that there were two explosions.
The first happened in and around the gates of the Folawiyo fuel depot on Creek Road while the second minutes later when a Toyota Sienna people carrier exploded in the road nearby, they said.
"I was on duty that night," said security guard Samuel George. "All of a sudden, we heard a loud explosion and we quickly shut the gate... Some minutes later, a car that was parked in the middle of the road exploded.
"My colleague and I were hit by broken pieces of metal from the car. I had a deep cut on my face and head and since then have not been able to work. Many people were killed, including those I knew," the 25-year-old added.
Another local worker added: "I don't know why the government is lying. The explosions were nothing short of bombings."
Claims that the first explosion was caused by a female suicide bomber could not be verified with certainty.
- 'Islamist sympathisers' -
The head of the Yinka Folawiyo Group of Companies, which runs the fuel depot, has denied that the blast happened inside the facility and dismissed reports of fatalities, according to local media.
A US government official said Boko Haram had the "operational reach to get to Lagos" but only Control Risks has so far directly linked the bombing to the group.
But Barclay qualified: "The incident is likely to have been staged by a local Islamist network rather than being planned and coordinated by Boko Haram's core leadership in the northeast."
Local groups have more parochial agendas, he added.
Further attacks were credible, probably on "soft targets", but the bombing did not necessarily signal the start of a "sustained insurgency" in Lagos, he said.