DOGO NAHAWA, Nigeria – The killers showed no mercy: They didn't spare women and children, or even a 4-day-old baby, from their machetes. On Monday, women wailed in the streets as a dump truck carried dozens of bodies past burned-out homes toward a mass grave.
Rubber-gloved workers pulled ever-smaller bodies from the dump truck and tossed them into the mass grave. A crowd began singing a hymn with the refrain, "Jesus said I am the way to heaven." As the grave filled, the grieving crowd sang: "Jesus, show me the way."
At least 200 people, most of them Christians, were slaughtered on Sunday, according to residents, aid groups and journalists. The local government gave a figure more than twice that amount, but offered no casualty list or other information to substantiate it.
An Associated Press reporter counted 61 corpses, 32 of them children, being buried in the mass grave in the village of Dogo Nahawa on Monday. Other victims would be buried elsewhere. At a local morgue the bodies of children, including a diaper-clad toddler, were tangled together. One appeared to have been scalped. Others had severed hands and feet.
The horrific violence comes after sectarian killings in this region in January left more than 300 dead, most of them Muslim. Some victims were shoved into sewer pits and communal wells.
Sunday's bloodshed in three mostly Christian villages appeared to be reprisal attacks, said Red Cross spokesman Robin Waubo.
Nigeria is almost evenly split between Muslims in the north and the predominantly Christian south. The recent bloodshed has been happening in central Nigeria, in towns which lie along the country's religious fault line. It is Nigeria's "middle belt," where dozens of ethnic groups vie for control of fertile lands.
Rev. Pandang Yamsat, the president of a local Christian group, said he has urged his congregation not to respond violently to Muslims. However, he said he believes Muslims in the area want to control the region and that any peace talks would only give Muslims "time to conquer territory with swords."
The Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, condemned the violence and said Monday that the conflict must be interpreted in the light of social, economic, ethnic and cultural factors rather than religious hatred.
The killings add to the tally of thousands who have already perished in Africa's most populous country in the last decade due to religious and political frictions. Rioting in September 2001 killed more than 1,000 people. Muslim-Christian battles killed up to 700 people in 2004. More than 300 residents died during a similar uprising in 2008.
The killings in Dogo Nahawa, three miles (five kilometers) south of the region's main city of Jos, began early Sunday.
Chuwanga Gyang, 30, said he heard a gunshot and left his house through the back door but stopped when he realized that the attackers were shooting to herd fleeing villagers toward another group of attackers carrying machetes.
He recalled climbing into a tree and watching as villagers were killed and the attackers set homes alight over the course of 90 minutes.
The attackers asked people "Who are you?" in Fulani, a language used mostly by Muslims, and killed those who did not answer back in Fulani, he said.
Plateau State spokesman Gregory Yenlong said police are seeking to arrest Saleh Bayari, the regional leader of the Fulanis, alleging Bayari had made comments incited the slaughter. He gave no details.
The chairman of the local Fulani organization denied that his people were involved in the violence.
Jos has been under a dusk-til-dawn curfew enforced by the military since January's religious-based violence. It was not clear how the attackers managed to elude the military curfew early Sunday.
Christian evangelist Musah Paul Gindiri said the police and military provided no security to the villages attacked Sunday morning.
"We have seen our flock is becoming very restive as the government is not trying to protect them," he said, warning that Christians would fight back if attacked again.
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," he said in a statement. "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."
More than 600 people have 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.
Associated Press Writers Ahmed Saka in Jos, Nigeria; Bashir Adigun in Abuja, Nigeria; and Jude Owuamanam in Dogo Nahawa, Nigeria, contributed to this report.