LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — Christians and Muslims have clashed for years in central Nigeria, a conflict that took an unexpected turn when Islamist insurgents based in the northeast claimed responsibility for deadly weekend raids on Christian villages.
Many initially blamed Muslim herdsmen for the raids in Plateau state. Hundreds of assailants armed with guns and machetes stormed a dozen Christian villages on Saturday, said Capt. Mustapha Saliu, a spokesman for a special unit of police and soldiers deployed to halt violence in the area. Some attackers wore police uniforms and bullet-proof vests, he said.
The following day, as dignitaries attended a mass burial, a federal senator and a state lawmaker lost consciousness and died during an attack. Saliu said it was unclear how they died.
The Nigerian Red Cross said at least 58 people died in the attacks and from security forces fighting back. Most of the victims of the initial attacks are presumed to be Christians. Reprisals from both Christians and Muslims have killed more from both sides, a rescue official said on condition of anonymity because he does not have authority to speak to the press on the matter.
A statement attributed to the Islamist radical sect Boko Haram and obtained by The Associated Press claimed it was responsible for the attacks and warned that Christians "will not know peace again" if they do not accept Islam.
The claim fits into the sect's previously expressed plan to increase attacks on Christians. Earlier, Boko Haram claimed responsibility for bomb attacks on churches in the Plateau state capital of Jos as well as in cities and towns further north. The group has also said it would avenge the deaths of Muslims in Plateau state.
The claim by Boko Haram could not be substantiated. Authorities noted the weekend attacks did not involve bombs or other explosives — Boko Haram's weapons of choice. Raiding villages would be a dangerous escalation for Boko Haram; the tactic has been used in the past by Muslim herdsmen of the Fulani tribe.
The violence in central Nigeria, though it crosses religious lines, often has more to do with local politics, economics and grazing rights. The government of Plateau state is controlled by Christians who have blocked Muslims from being legally recognized as citizens. That has locked many Muslims out of government jobs in a region where tourism and the tin mining industry have collapsed.
Human Rights Watch has said at least 1,000 people died in 2010 communal clashes in Plateau state. Clashes between Muslim Fulani herdsmen and Christian farmers of the Berom tribe remain common despite the declaration of a state of emergency.
Andronicus Adeyemo, an official with the Nigerian Red Cross, said the conflict in Plateau state has displaced nearly 4,000 people.
In most parts of Nigeria, a large-scale attack on Christians would have been quickly blamed on Boko Haram, but analysts were divided about the claim for the raids in Plateau state.
"Authorities are investigating but I don't think that Boko Haram could, out of nowhere, have raided these villages," said criminal justice consultant Innocent Chukwuma, "they couldn't do that without local support and collaboration."
Shehu Sani, an activist and author of "The Killing Fields," a history of religious violence in Nigeria, disagreed.
"From my knowledge and experience about the Boko Haram group, I believe 100 percent that they were responsible," Sani said. "I think they operated alone," he said, adding that Boko Haram has deployed a large number of attackers in other cities before.
Special unit spokesman Saliu said Boko Haram's claim of responsibility was not "conclusive" but that "it could help."
"It can help because at least we know that we are all fighting a common enemy," he said, adding that he hoped the claim would dissuade further reprisal attacks.
Boko Haram members and most Fulani herdsmen are Muslims. But the ethnic composition of Boko Haram is believed to be different from the Fulani people, and Boko Haram has been known to turn against Muslims who do not share its extremist views.
"Given that there have already been cycles of violence going on in Plateau state, I wonder if Boko Haram isn't trying to cash in on that," said Alex Thurston, a Northwestern University expert on reformist Islam and electoral politics in northern Nigeria. "It seems that some people have an interest in localizing it and keeping it to local grievances while some people have an interest in nationalizing it and Boko Haram is one of those groups."
As investigators try to determine who carried out the attacks, local groups hope the Boko Haram claim will not draw attention away from their grievances.
"We don't protect (Boko Haram) and they don't protect us," said Saleh Bayari, national chairman for the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria which protects the rights of the Fulani people. "Some people may have written this statement to give the tag 'Boko Haram' to our communities which will give them a justification to treat our people like outlaws."
"We are not outlaws," Bayari said.
Mark Lipdo, director of the Stefanos Foundation, a Jos-based Christian organization, said the claim does not exculpate the Fulani herdsmen. "Boko Haram are settling (scores for) their own. If Fulanis are taking that call, it is a big problem to Nigeria; it means Fulani are becoming Boko Haram."
Boko Haram has been trying to fan religious conflict in the country with recent attacks focusing on areas with religious tensions and a history of reprisal attacks.
The sect claimed responsibility last month for deadly blasts at churches that led to reprisal attacks in Kaduna, a state bordering Plateau.
Both states are in central Nigeria, the region between the predominantly Muslim north and the mainly Christian south in the nation of more than 160 million people.
Associated Press reporter Ahmed Saka in Jos, Nigeria contributed to this report.