Lagos - Lagos - President Goodluck Jonathan on Sunday said Islamist group Boko Haram was seeking to incite a religious crisis by attacking churches in an attempt to destabilise the government.
"Terrorists all over the world have one common agenda: destabilising government," he said during a question-and-answer session on national television.
Jonathan, who has come under heavy criticism in recent days over spiralling violence in the country's north, described how the group had moved from targeting local rivals to government institutions and now churches.
He said earlier waves of attacks had not brought down the government, leading the group to target churches in Africa's most populous nation, roughly divided between a mainly Muslim north and predominately Christian south.
"Attacking churches is to instigate religious crisis," Jonathan said. "They believe that when they attack a church, Christian youths will revolt against Muslim youths. They don't care about who dies in the process.
"If it doesn't work, the same Boko Haram will start attacking mosques to instigate Muslim youths to attack Christians. So they change their tactics."
Jonathan, however, pledged that Nigeria would halt the violence. He said the government was open to dialogue if Boko Haram figures identified themselves and made clear demands.
The television appearance, in which the president took questions from a panel of journalists before fielding phone-in questions from ordinary Nigerians, featured some of his clearest statements yet on the Boko Haram insurgency, which has killed hundreds since 2009.
Most of his public comments have been limited to assurances that the violence will soon end, and the country's main Christian body this week in a rare move directly and harshly criticised him over his response to the insurgency.
On Friday, Jonathan fired his national security adviser and defence minister.
Nigeria has been grappling with Boko Haram's insurgency for months, but criticism of Jonathan intensified after three suicide bombings at churches on 17 June sparked reprisals from Christians who burnt mosques and killed dozens of Muslims.
More rioting occurred in the days following the bombings in Kaduna state, while two days of clashes between security forces and suspected Islamists in the north-eastern city of Damaturu left at least 40 dead.
At least 106 people were killed in the violence.
On Sunday, also in Damaturu, attackers with guns and explosives raided the central jail, leaving four prison guards dead and freeing 40 inmates, authorities said.
There have been growing warnings that there could be more cases of residents taking the law into their own hands if something is not done to halt Boko Haram attacks.
The group initially said it was fighting for the creation of an Islamic state, but its demands have since repeatedly shifted. It is believed to have a number of factions, including a main Islamist wing.
Many say deep poverty and frustration in the north have been main factors in creating the insurgency.
The United States on Thursday said it had designated the head of the main branch of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, a "global terrorist" along with two others tied to both Boko Haram and al-Qaeda's north African branch.