Armed semi-nomadic herdsmen killed 16 people in an attack on a church congregation in a central state of Nigeria plagued by communal violence, police said.
Hundreds died in clashes this year between herders and farmers in central Nigeria in violence that has put pressure on President Muhammadu Buhari less than a year before an election he wants to contest.
The bloody clashes, linked to grazing rights and dwindling fertile land, raise questions about government’s ability to maintain security.
Moses Yamu, a police spokesman in Benue state, said the attack took place in the village of Ayar Mbalom, in Gwer East local government authority.
“Sixteen persons were confirmed killed, including two priests,” said Yamu.
Herdsmen involved in the communal violence are mainly Muslims from the Fulani ethnic group, while members of the settled farming communities are mostly Christian. Attacks are by both sides.
Some 73 people were killed in central states – known as the “Middle Belt” – in the first few days of 2018, prompting a high- profile mass burial in Benue state capital, Makurdi.
Critics of Buhari, a Muslim who is Fulani, accuse him of failing to crack down on herdsmen because they are from the same ethnic group – an accusation his administration repeatedly denies.
The latest killings were described as “heinous” by Buhari, a 75-year-old former military ruler who vowed to improve security when he took office in May 2015.
“Violating a place of worship, killing priests and worshippers 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.
Buhari declared earlier this month he would seek a second term. His candidacy depends on party approval, widely seen as a formality.
The Middle Belt includes a number of swing states that could play a significant role in determining Buhari’s electoral prospects.