JOS, Nigeria – Rioters armed with machetes slaughtered more than 200 people overnight Sunday as religious violence flared anew between Christians and Muslims in central Nigeria, witnesses said. Hundreds of people fled their homes, fearing reprisal attacks.
The bodies of the dead — including many women and children — lined dusty streets in three mostly Christian villages south of the regional capital of Jos, local journalists and a civil rights group said. They said at least 200 bodies had been counted by Sunday afternoon.
Torched homes smoldered after the 3 a.m. attacks that a region-wide curfew enforced by the country's police and military should have stopped.
The killings represent the latest religious violence in an area once known as Nigeria's top tourist destination, adding to the tally of thousands already killed in the last decade in the name of religious and political ambitions.
Jos lies in Nigeria's "middle belt," where dozens of ethnic groups mingle in a band of fertile and hotly contested land separating the Muslim north from the predominantly Christian south.
In Dogo Nahawa, a village three miles (five kilometers) south of Jos, residents said the dead included a 4-day-old infant. Those who survived claimed their attackers shouted at them in Hausa and Fulani — two local languages used by Muslims.
A spokesman for Plateau state where Jos is located, Gregory Yenlong, said police were seeking to arrest Saleh Bayari, the regional leader of the Fulanis, because Bayari's comments incited the attack. He offered no other details.
But the chairman of the local Fulani organization denied that his people were involved in the attack.
Nigerian military units began surrounding the affected villages Sunday afternoon, said Red Cross spokesman Robin Waubo. It was not clear if the violence was still continuing.
Waubo said the agency did not know how many people may have died in the fighting but workers have been sent to local morgues and hospitals to check.
Jos has been under a dusk-til-dawn curfew enforced by the military since religious-based violence in January left more than 300 people dead — most of them Muslims. It was not clear how the attackers managed to elude the military curfew early Sunday.
"It appears to be reprisal attacks," Waubo said.
In a statement Sunday night, acting President Goodluck Jonathan said security agencies would be stationed along Plateau state's borders to keep outsiders from coming in with more weapons and fighters.
"(We will) undertake strategic initiatives to confront and defeat these roving bands of killers," the statement read. "While it is too early to state categorically what is responsible for this renewed wave of violence, we want to inform Nigerians that the security services are on top of the situation."
In nearby Bauchi state, more than 600 people fled to a makeshift camp that still held victims from January's violence, said Red Cross official Adamu Abubakar. He expected more to come, putting an even bigger strain on the already limited humanitarian aid for those fleeing the violence.
Jos has a history of communal violence that has made elections difficult to organize. Rioting in September 2001 killed more than 1,000 people and Muslim-Christian battles killed up to 700 people in 2004. More than 300 residents died during a similar uprising in 2008 and violence that began in January killed more than 300 people.
When religious violence takes place in Nigeria, it normally has roots in local issues, rather than being influenced by international extremist groups.
In Jos, Muslims have complained about being denied jobs and other benefits by the Christian-dominated government. However, many Muslims also operate shops and businesses in a nearby town where the tourist trade has dried up and the surrounding tin mines have been abandoned, stoking fears for Christians about retaliation from Muslim neighbors.
Associated Press Writer Bashir Adigun contributed to this report from Abuja, Nigeria. Gambrell reported from Lagos, Nigeria.