More than 200 people have been killed in central Nigeria in the past month in tit-for-tat clashes between rival ethnic and religious gangs, said Human Rights Watch.
Many of the victims, including children, were hacked to death or burned alive in dawn attacks on villages and reprisal killings in Plateau state, which lies between Nigeria’s mostly Muslim north and largely Christian south.
“This terrible cycle of violence and impunity needs to stop,” said Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at the US-based rights group.
“Both the state and federal governments have shown a disturbing lack of urgency in addressing the violence and the underlying causes of these deadly outbreaks,” she said.
The tension is rooted in decades of resentment between indigenous groups, mostly Christian or animist, and migrants and settlers from the Muslim north, who are vying for control of fertile farmlands and for economic and political power, Reuters reports.
It is largely contained within one region of Africa’s most populous nation and does not, on its own, risk derailing presidential, parliamentary and state elections in April.
But it is likely to escalate in the run-up to the polls and gives President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration a third security challenge on top of attacks by a radical Islamic sect in the remote northeast and the threat of renewed violence in the oil-producing Niger Delta, on its southern coast.
There have been almost daily clashes between Christian and Muslim mobs in villages around Jos, the capital of Plateau state, since a series of bombs were detonated during Christmas Eve celebrations a month ago, killing scores of people.
At least 12 people were killed in the latest attack on mostly Christian villages near Barkin Ladi, just outside Jos, late on Wednesday. A special task force of police and soldiers detained 29 suspects from the northern Hausa-Fulani ethnic group, whom they paraded before journalists.
“On sighting the troops, the attackers opened fire on them. In the exchange of fire, two people were killed and 29 captured alive,” taskforce spokesman Charles Ekeocha said.
CALL FOR U.N. INVESTIGATION
A statement on a militant Islamist website claimed the December bombs were carried out by Boko Haram, a radical sect in the remote northeast, but there was no independent confirmation and the attacks were beyond the sect’s usual area of operation.
Some security sources believe the bombs were set off to provoke clashes between Christians and Muslims in a region where thousands have died in religious and ethnic violence over the past decade.
Human Rights Watch catalogued a series of attacks on villages and targeted killings since December.
It called on the Nigerian government to allow the United Nations special adviser on the prevention of genocide, Francis Deng, to visit Plateau, saying his request to do so last September had gone unanswered.
Some members of the Christian community have accused the security forces of backing the mostly Muslim Hausa-Fulani ethnic group during the unrest. The rank and file of the army are from both religions but senior officers stationed in the region are predominantly Muslim, they say.
The military denies the accusations but has faced protests from villagers, who hurled stones and burnt the tents of soldiers earlier this week.
Interior Minister Emmanuel Iheanacho told Reuters on Wednesday the government was investigating the possible involvement of soldiers in the violence and declined to comment further until the probe had been concluded.