At least 5,000 people have fled villages in central Nigeria at the heart of clashes between nomadic cattle herders and farmers, officials said Thursday, as at least five people have died in the fighting.
Authorities acknowledged there could be many more deaths in the violence hitting rural Benue and Nasarawa states in Nigeria's fertile central belt, a dividing line in the country between religious and ethnic groups.
However, the remote villages remain difficult to reach and government officials appear hesitant to publicize details of the attacks at risk of inflaming a region where such clashes remain common.
The fighting began this week as Muslim Fulani cattle herders found some of their livestock dead, said Conrad Wergba, Benue state's information commissioner. The cattle herders retaliated by attacking villages of the Christian Tiv ethnic group in both Benue and Nasarawa states, he said.
"It is an occurring problem," Wergba said. "There is this conflict each time their cattle destroy the Tiv farmland during grazing."
A combined force of police and military moved into the areas to guard the area, he said.
Benue State police spokesman Ejike Alaribe said at least five people had died in the attacks, though he acknowledged that was all authorities could confirm on their own in the remote villages.
"That's official figures, but some others died but not in this our state," Alaribe said. "It's a remote area. Most of the things that happen, they don't feel like going to report them to the appropriate authorities. ... It could be more."
Victoria Monde, the information commissioner of Nasarawa state, referred questions to an employee who refused to give his name, but said the government had given food to refugees in multiple camps. Both the employee and Monde declined to comment further.
The Tiv represent one the largest of the minority ethnic groups in Nigeria, a nation of more than 160 million people and more than 250 different ethnicities.
Benue state has seen previous clashes in the past between them and other groups over land issues. In 2001, during one of the worst spates of violence, Nigeria's federal government sent soldiers to the region that killed 200 villagers in a massacre after local militants killed military members.
Jon Gambrell can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.