Gunmen have killed 19 people in an attack on a church in the central Nigerian state of Benue. The attack by the armed men, believed to be cattle herders, was launched on Tuesday at around 06:00 am local time (05:00 GMT) in the village of Ayar Mbalom, in Gwer East local government authority, according to Benue State police spokesman Moses Yamu.
The attackers, thought to be Fulani herdsmen, also torched homes in the remote village. Media sources cited local authorities as claiming that 50 houses had been torched. Two priests were among the casualties.
The local sources said that a few days earlier, ten other farmers had been killed by suspected cattle herders. The semi-nomadic herdsmen believed to be involved in the communal clashes are said to be from the Fulani ethnic group, who are mainly Muslim, while the dominant settled farming communities are mostly Christian.
The sides have been in a long-standing land dispute, and authorities were expected to make arrests following the escalated tensions.
Critics of Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, who is himself a Muslim Fulani, have accused him of failing to crack down on herdsmen because they are from his ethnic group.
President Buhari has rejected such accusations. He described the Tuesday attack as “vile, evil and satanic.”
“Violating a place of worship, killing priests and worshipers is not only vile, evil, and satanic, it is clearly calculated to stoke up religious conflict and plunge our communities into endless bloodletting,” he said in a statement after the incident.
On Saturday, two bomb attacks killed three Muslim worshipers at a mosque in the town of Bama in the northeast Nigerian state of Borno.
Nigeria is combating a range of security threats throughout the West African country, from the Daesh-linked Boko Haram terrorists in the northeast to oil militants in the south.