By Buhari Bello
JOS, Nigeria (Reuters) - Nigerian Islamist sect Boko Haram said on Tuesday it was behind attacks in volatile Plateau state last weekend that killed at least 65 people, but security forces blamed the violence on localized ethnic clashes.
"We praise God in this war for the Prophet Mohammad. We thank Allah for the successful attack in ... Plateau state on Christians and security men," an email in the local Hausa language from the Boko Haram's spokesman Abul Qaqa said.
The email was sent to reporters in Boko Haram's home base in northeast Maiduguri from an address previously used by Qaqa.
But there are doubts about the level of Boko Haram's involvement because security forces said when violence broke out on Saturday they were engaging nomadic Fulani herdsman who often clash with indigenous tribes in the volatile "Middle Belt", where the largely-Muslim north meets the mostly-Christian south.
On Sunday, gunmen shot dead a senator and several others at a mass burial of 63 victims killed in the previous day's violence. Boko Haram often targets government officials.
"Before, Christians were killing Muslims, helped by the government, so we have decided that we will continue to hunt down government agents wherever they are," Qaqa's email said.
Fighting erupted on Saturday in often volatile areas in Plateau state when gunmen fought with security forces, torched mostly Christian villages and butchered families.
Security forces said they were engaging migrant Fulani herdsman who for years have clashed with indigenous tribes over fertile farmland and property disputes. Political rivalries have stoked violence in the past.
There was no mention by the Fulani herdsman or the military of Boko Haram involvement in the weekend's violence but the sect has been behind several suicide bombings this year on churches in Jos, Plateau's capital.
President Goodluck Jonathan, who sacked his defense minister and national security adviser last month, pledged to track down the people who killed Senator Gyang Dantong, of the ruling People's Democratic Party, at the funeral.
Jonathan, a southern Christian, has come under intense pressure to stem the spread of violence in the north, where his opponents say he is out of touch.
Security experts believe Boko Haram's attacks on churches in central and northern Nigeria are an attempt to provoke a wider religious conflict inside Africa's biggest oil producer.
Boko Haram has killed hundreds this year in its insurgency against Jonathan's government. The sect wants to carve out an Islamic state in Africa's most populous nation.
(Additional reporting by Ibrahim Mshelizza in Maiduguri, Isaac Abrak in Lagos, Augustine Madu in Kano, Mike Oboh and Afolabi Sotunde in Abuja; Writing by Joe Brock; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)