At least 16 people, including two Catholic priests, were killed after gunmen opened fire on a church congregation on Tuesday in the Mbalom area of central Nigeria’s Benue state, Reuters reported. Some reports, however, said the toll was higher, at 19.
Benue has been plagued by clashes between the Fulani herdsmen – who are mostly Muslims – and farmers, predominantly Christians, according to CNN. In January, at least 72 people died in communal clashes in Benue.
Benue Police Commissioner Fatai Owoseni said around 30 suspected Fulani herdsmen “attacked the venue of a burial ceremony and the church where the two reverend fathers were holding mass”, according to AFP. The Catholic Diocese of Makurdi confirmed the death of priests Joseph Gor and Felix Tyolaha.
Moses Yamu, a police spokesperson in Benue state, said the attack took place around 6 am local time (10.30 am Indian Standard Time) on Tuesday. “Sixteen persons were confirmed killed, including two priests,” Yamu said, according to Reuters.
Police spokesperson Terver Akase told CNN that the attackers “burnt nearly 50 houses and [ransacked] the entire community.” He added that arrests would be made as attackers are “becoming more brazen.”
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari condemned the attack and described it as “vile and satanic” and that it aimed to stoke religious conflict, according to BBC.
Riots also broke out in Makurdi, the capital of Benue, following the church attack. Police fired teargas to disperse a mob that took over a busy intersection and lit fires. “We are under siege,” Benue Acting Governor Benson Abounu said.