Dan Manjang, an adviser to the Plateau State government, said scores had been arrested, adding that the death toll had shot up.

Death toll

"We have been able to make 95 arrests but at the same time over 500 people have been killed in this heinous act," he said in a telephone interview to the AFP news agency.

State radio also reported that 500 people had been butchered in a night raid on three villages on the fringes of Jos.

IN DEPTH

  Timeline: Tensions in Nigeria
  Nigeria's sectarian crisis
  Video: Jos violence

Our correspondent quoted police as saying that the attackers were Muslim Hausa-Fulani herders while the victims were mainly predominantly Christians from the Borom community.

"This really is a test for his [president] ability to show that he does have the powers to deploy the police and army as commander-in-chief, and many people will be watching exactly to see how he deals with this," Ndege said.

The office of Goodluck Jonathan, Nigeria's acting president, said he had "directed that the security services undertake strategic initiatives to confront and defeat these roving bands of killers", blamed for "causing considerable death and injury".  

Officials from the central government were holding an emergency meeting, said our correspondent, adding that there was now a heavy police presence in the area to prevent any reprisal attacks.

According to a Red Cross official, at least two other nearby communities were also targeted, in an area close to where sectarian clashes killed hundreds of people in January.

'Ethnic cleansing'

It was not immediately clear what triggered the latest unrest, but four days of sectarian clashes in January between mobs armed with guns, knives and machetes left hundreds of people dead in Jos, which lies at the crossroads of Nigeria's Muslim north and predominantly Christian south.

The tension appears rooted in resentment between indigenous, mostly Christian groups, and migrants and settlers from the Hausa-speaking Muslim north, all vying for control of fertile farmlands.

"Part of the problem is that there's a feeling that Jos is being dominated by migrant communities from nothern Nigeria...," our correspondent said.  

Felix Onuah, a freelance journalist, told Al Jazeera that he had spoken to the information commissioner of the Plateau State who said that the attack "was nothing but ethnic cleansing".

"It's a revenge," he said, adding that the ethnic group that retaliated was adversely affected during the January violence.