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ABUJA (Reuters) - U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro vowed the United Nations would not be deterred from its work on Sunday, after visiting survivors of a bombing at its Nigeria headquarters that killed at least 23 people.
Friday's car bomb targeting the U.N. compound in Abuja blew out windows, gutted a lower floor and set the building alight in one of the most lethal attacks on the world body in its history. Migiro said 73 were wounded, and four of the most seriously injured were evacuated to South Africa.
There was no confirmed claim of responsibility for the attack but security sources suspect the violent Islamist sect Boko Haram, which has been blamed for almost daily bomb and gun attacks on security forces and civilians in the northeast.
"Such attacks will neither deter us in our work nor win any new sympathisers to whatever (their) cause might be ... We cannot allow ourselves to be intimidated by terrorists," Migiro told a news conference in the Nigerian capital.
"There can be no justification for terrorism. The perpetrators must be brought to justice."
A U.N. spokesman accompanying Migiro at the hospital where the victims were being treated said the death toll had risen to 23, from an earlier emergency services estimate of 19.
That would make it more deadly than the truck bomb on the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad in 2003 that killed 22 people, including U.N. envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello.
"We are working as a team to ensure that the injured do get all the treatment that they require," Migiro said, after visiting the hospital, where she shook hands and tried to comfort the wounded.
"For people who had lost their lives we are working to see how they are going to be laid to rest."
Migiro met with Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, who has also visited the bomb site but declined to speculate on who could be behind the attack.
If Boko Haram, whose name means "Western education is sinful" in the northern Hausa language, was responsible, it marks an increase in the sophistication of its attacks and an escalation from local to international targets.
Analysts, including London-based consultancy Songhai Advisory, on Friday questioned how the bomber was able to slip past two U.N. security barriers with apparent ease.
"I have looked at the ripped-up gate. It is amazing how this happened and we are grappling with that, now ... an investigation is under way ... We will see what we have to do better," said Migiro, who was accompanied by U.N. Security Chief Gregory Starr.
After meeting with Migiro, Jonathan pledged in a statement from the presidency to offer temporary accommodation and help reconstruct the building so the U.N. could "continue doing the good humanitarian work you have been doing."
"He commended ... efforts to bring relief to those affected by this condemnable act of destruction," the statement added.
Most of the dead were Nigerian, but a Norway official confirmed one of its citizens was also killed. Migiro told the news conference Kenyan and Ivorian citizens also died.
A U.N. official said the organisation may be able to release the names and nationalities of the dead later on Sunday.
The BBC said Boko Haram had contacted it to claim responsibility for the attack, but such claims are hard to verify because the sect's command structure is opaque and many people claim to speak on its behalf.
Its activities used to be confined to the remote northeast, on the threshold of the Sahara desert, where it has killed more than 150 people in bombings and shootings this year -- although it claimed a car bomb at police headquarters in Abuja in June.
It says it wants Sharia law more widely applied in Nigeria, beyond the mostly Muslim north, but until Friday had shown no interest in hitting Western targets.
Intelligence officials say they have evidence that some Boko Haram members have trained in Niger and have made contact with al Qaeda's North African wing, which may explain the new style of attack.
The car's driver died in the blast, possibly making it Nigeria's first suicide bombing - a classic al Qaeda tactic.
Jonathan tightened security after the attack and armed soldiers patrolled Abuja, searching cars at roadblocks across the city, which lies in the middle of the country where the mostly-Christian south and largely-Muslim north meet.
Security experts say many of Boko Haram's attacks are carried out by disillusioned youths, in a region that has much higher illiteracy, poverty and unemployment rates than the south.
A security source on Saturday told Reuters he suspects there may also be a political dimension to its growing attacks, suggesting they are being coopted by northern politicians angry about Jonathan, a Christian southerner, winning April's poll.
(Reporting by Felix Onuah; Writing by Tim Cocks)