JOS, Nigeria (AP) — Gunmen shot and killed at least 30 people, burned down 40 homes and made off with scores of cattle from a mainly Christian village, survivors and a legislator said Tuesday as ongoing ethnic-religious conflict over land and water grips central Nigeria.
Some victims burned to death in Monday's attack, according to witnesses and the military.
Military spokesman Capt. Salifu Mustapha said soldiers recovered 15 bodies, seven of them charred, disputing the higher death toll. Authorities regularly downplay such casualty figures.
The financial secretary of the Miyette Allah, a Fulani association, denied charges that Fulani herdsmen were the attackers, saying those making the claims "must bring proof."
Legislator Daniel Dem said 30 people were killed and many injured because the attack lasted more than four hours. "We have security men there and if the attack started at 8 a.m. and lasted until after noon, I think something must be wrong. What are the military there for?" he asked.
Mustapha said soldiers were alerted at 9:30 a.m. and quickly deployed to find "dozens of armed men ... burning huts, farm produce and attacking innocent people." He said the troops called for reinforcement to repel the attackers.
Soldiers are based in Riyom town, which is not far from the scene as the crow flies, but many villages are in mountains with difficult terrain. Riyom is about 50 kilometers (30 miles) from Jos, the Plateau state capital.
Dem noted that a village chief and two community leaders were killed there just before Christmas, indicating tensions between semi-nomadic Fulani herdsmen who are Muslim and sedentary Christian farmers who regularly feud over land and water. Christian politicians have the upper hand in the region around Plateau — an area where the country's mainly Muslim north and predominantly Christian south collide and deadly clashes are frequent.
Human Rights Watch last month blamed Nigeria's government, saying it has largely ignored years of "mass murder" in Nigeria's Middle Belt and failed to prosecute known killers, leaving people to take to revenge killings that further fuel the cycle of violence.
Militants waging an Islamic uprising in northeast Nigeria have "invoked the lack of justice for attacks on Muslims" in these communities to justify killing Christians, the New York-based advocacy group said, amid fears the rebellion could spread.
The chairman of Berom (Christian) Youths, Dongo Audu Gyang, said Fulani gunmen stormed four villages of the Shonong community in a "commando-like operation." He said he did not have a toll because "we are still evacuating corpses and searching for missing persons in the bush."
A nurse at Christian Hospital Vom said they were treating 15 critically injured, speaking on condition of anonymity because she is not allowed to speak to reporters.
One survivor said the attackers struck after all the young men had gone to the farmlands, so those killed were mainly aged people, women and children. The man spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Associated Press writer Michelle Faul contributed to this report from Lagos, Nigeria.