JOS, Nigeria (AP) — Raids and reprisal attacks have left 58 people dead in Christian villages near a Nigerian city where authorities have struggled to contain religious violence, officials said Sunday.
Assailants launched "sophisticated attacks" on several villages near Jos early Saturday, said Mustapha Salisu, spokesman for a special taskforce made up of policemen and soldiers deployed in the area to curb years of violence.
"They came in hundreds," Salisu said. "Some had (police) uniforms and some even had bulletproof vests."
He said the special taskforce fought back for hours and lost two policemen in the battle. Salisu initially said that 37 people were killed including 14 civilians and 21 assailants.
However, late Sunday, Nigerian Red Cross official Andronicus Adeyemo said aid workers had counted 56 dead and more than 300 displaced people from the attacks. He did not give a breakdown.
He said the killing of a federal lawmaker and a state lawmaker brought the deaths to 58 after the two officials were ambushed Sunday afternoon on their way to a mass burial for the victims.
The state government's press officer, James Mannock, said they were Senator Gyang Dantong and majority leader of the Plateau State House of Assembly Gyang Fulani.
A third lawmaker hurt in the ambush was one of seven people injured, Adeyemo said.
"As a nation, we must rise against those who are determined to return us to a state of nature where life has little or no value," Nigerian Senate President David Mark said in a statement.
Authorities declined to comment on who they suspect, but similar raids have been blamed on Muslim herdsmen in the past.
Mark Lipdo, who runs a Christian advocacy group known as the Stefanos Foundation, gave a list of the 13 villages where he got reports of attacks. He said they were all Christian.
He blamed Muslim herdsmen of the Fulani ethnic group for the attacks. However, Nurudeen Abdullahi, Plateau State Chairman of Miyetti Allah Fulani Herdsmen Association, denied any involvement by the herdsmen.
"This a usual propaganda used on our people but we are not the ones that attacked the villages in the area," he said.
Abdullahi accused Christian farmers of attacking Muslim settlements and stealing their cows.
Jos and surrounding Plateau state have been torn apart in recent years by violence pitting its different ethnic groups and major religions — Christianity and Islam — against each other. While divided by religion, politics and economics often fuel the fighting.
These are just the latest killings to target the Riyom and Barkin Ladi local government areas, regions of farmlands that supply produces like potatoes, corn and tomatoes to the rest of the nation.
Nigeria, a multiethnic nation of more than 160 million people, is largely divided into a mainly Christian south and a predominantly Muslim north. Jos is located in the "middle belt," at the meeting point of these two regions.
Human Rights Watch says at least 1,000 people were killed in communal clashes around Jos in 2010.
However, the rise of a northern-based Islamist insurgency known as Boko Haram has added a new dimension to the long-running conflict, fanning religious tensions in this flashpoint area.
Salisu said authorities discovered a bomb and safely detonated it late Friday in a populated neighborhood in the city of Jos.
They declined to say who they suspect but sect members have claimed responsibility for bomb attacks in Jos in the past.
All previous Jos attacks have targeted churches, a deliberate move to trigger more religious violence, many have said. They all sparked reprisals.
Associated Press writers Yinka Ibukun in Lagos and Bashir Adigun in Abuja, Nigeria contributed to this report.