Kano: A suspected suicide bombing rocked a presidential campaign rally in northeast Nigeria on Monday, as the country braced for fresh Boko Haram attacks before polling in just under two weeks time.
President Goodluck Jonathan, who had been addressing supporters of his ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in Gombe city, had just left the venue when the blast happened in a car park outside.
Rescue workers and health officials said the bodies of two women were brought to the Gombe State Specialist Hospital with 18 people who were injured.
"We have evacuated two bodies of females we believe were suicide bombers behind the blast," said the rescue official, who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorised to speak to media.
The blast, confirmed by eyewitnesses including a local reporter following the presidential convoy, came a day after two explosions in Gombe city blamed on Boko Haram militants.
Sunday`s attacks left at least five people dead in a weekend of deadly violence that also saw the Islamists attack the key city of Maiduguri for the second time in a week.
Nigerian troops, aided by civilian vigilantes, repelled the attack while Chad and Cameroon bombed the Boko Haram-held town of Gamboru, on the eastern fringe of Borno State.
Security analysts believe Maiduguri, the Borno state capital, will likely be hit again before polling day, given its symbolism for the group and because it would undermine the February 14 vote.
The election is expected to be the closest since Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999, with the prospect of the PDP being dumped out of power for the first time in 16 years.
Nnamdi Obasi, Nigeria researcher at the International Crisis Group, said the upsurge in violence was "predictable" and that another strike on Maiduguri was on the cards.Boko Haram is in control of most of Borno and has effectively surrounded Maiduguri, which is seen as one of the few places left in the state where voting could feasibly still take place.
Turnout could be affected if large numbers of people, may of them displaced by six years of violence, desert the city, which with other areas in the northeast is a main opposition stronghold.
Capturing Maiduguri would not only be a morale-booster for the rebels but also likely sink Jonathan`s re-election bid once and for all, said Obasi.
Chad`s offensive comes after the African Union and United Nations last week backed a new 7,500-strong, five-nation force to tackle Boko Haram.
Nigeria`s military maintains that N`Djamena`s involvement is part of the existing agreement with Chad and Niger for their troops to assist in the counter-insurgency.
Chad and Niger had withdrawn their troops from the multi-national base at Baga, in northern Borno, last year, leaving only Nigerian soldiers to defend the town when it was attacked on January 3.
That led some to assume the existing force was dead in the water but the devastating strike on Baga, in which hundreds or more were feared killed, appears to have jolted it into action.Jonathan, who has been criticised for failing to end the violence, could be hoping for a political bounce from any military successes in the tight election campaign, even at this late stage.
But Mark Schroeder, from security and political analysts Stratfor, believes that allowing foreign forces to operate on Nigerian soil would be counter-productive to him and the country.
"This is essentially absolving Nigeria of its long-standing geopolitical strength as the region`s hegemon able to assist internal and pan-West African security stability," he said.
Schroeder, the group`s vice-president for Africa analysis, also considered Nigerian Army operations no more than "forays", adding that a sustained effort was needed to claw back territory.
Boko Haram`s attacks on Maiduguri may be designed to draw the Nigerian army to defend the city, allowing the group to mount strikes elsewhere in the northeast and defend eastern positions.
Ryan Cummings, chief Africa analyst at risk consultants Red24, suggested the last two strikes may have been preliminary tests of the city`s defences.
"Boko Haram is currently in its most advantageous tactical position to launch a large-scale offensive on Maiduguri, with the intent of actually capturing the city," he said.
"This could be the preamble to such a push. I still remain sceptical as to whether Boko Haram has the resources to either capture or hold a city the size of Maiduguri.
"But the sect may well be planning to give it a go."