Nigerian authorities on Sunday imposed a curfew in parts of central Plateau state, a day after a suspected Christian militia attacked a convoy of 90 Muslims, killing at least 23.
Northwest and central Nigeria have for years struggled with violence between mainly Muslim nomadic herders and Christian farmers over control of resources, water and land.
Condemning the attack, President Muhammadu Buhari said in a statement that this was “not an agriculturalist-on-pastoralist confrontation but rather a direct, brazen and wickedly motivated attack.”
On Saturday, “a group of attackers suspected to be Irigwe youths (predominantly Christian)… attacked a convoy of five buses with Muslim faithful,” said police spokesman Ubah Ogaba.
Police had initially said 22 of the 90 travellers were killed, but the death toll was revised upwards on Sunday.
“Twenty-three of those attacked lost their lives and 23 persons sustained injuries,” state governor Simon Lalong said in a statement.
Concerned about “persisting tensions and reported attempts by some persons to take the laws into their hands,” the governor “directed the imposition of a curfew on Jos North, Bassa and Jos South,” between 6:00 pm and 6:00 am.
Police said 20 suspects have been arrested while 33 victims have been rescued.
One of the members of the convoy who escaped, Muhammad Ibrahim, said the assault happened along Rukuba road, on the outskirts of Jos, the capital of Plateau state.
The Muslims were returning from Bauchi State, he said, after attending an event to celebrate the Islamic New Year.
“Iregwe militias attacked and used machetes, knives and stones to kill them,” said Malam Nura Abdullahi, representative of a local group representing herders, the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria.
He said the death toll was higher.
“We have prepared up to 25 dead bodies that are ready for burial,” said Abdullahi.
For years, Jos was a flashpoint for ethnic strife pitting Christian and Muslim youths against each other.
In September 2001, Christian-Muslim clashes around Jos left 913 people dead, according to Human Rights Watch.
While the governor said the attack on Saturday “should not be given any ethnic or religious colouration,” the presidency described it as a “pre-arranged assault on a known target, location and religious persuasion of the travellers, not an opportunist ambush.”
“These kinds of attacks on our country’s citizens are unacceptable, heinous, and stand in complete contradiction to the teachings of the great religions of our nation,” the presidency added.
Violence in central Nigeria is just one of the challenges facing Africa’s most populous country.
Security forces are also battling a 12-year jihadist insurgency in the northeast, kidnap gangs in the northwest and separatist agitation in the southeast.