At least 39 people have died and 30 others injured in fighting between Christian and Muslim groups in central Nigeria’s Taraba state, prompting a round-the-clock curfew, police have said.
Scores of houses were set ablaze and destroyed during the clashes in the town of Wukari, where the fighting started during a funeral procession apparently over an argument between members of the Jukun ethnic group and local Hausa and Fulani youths.
The clashes quickly degenerated into pitched battles with guns and machetes. The fact that Fulani settlers tend to be Muslim and other ethnic groups, including the Jukun, are mostly Christian, sometimes gives the conflict a religious dimension.
“We have so far compiled a death toll of 39 people while 30 others were seriously injured,” state police spokesman Joseph Kwaji told AFP news agency on Saturday.
Al Jazeera’s Yvonne Ndege, reporting from the northeastern city of Maiduguri, said police told her the fighting started at 6am local time during the funeral procession of a traditional chief from a predominantly Christian area.
“Apparently the Christian mourners were chanting slogans that Muslims viewed as an act of provocation,” Ndege said.
Local residents told AFP that the death toll could rise.
“Thirty-two houses have also been destroyed in the violence,” Kwaji said of the unrest which has prompted authorities to impose an indefinite all-round curfew in the predominantly Christian city.
He added that 40 suspects were arrested in the aftermath of the violence.
State information commissioner Emmanuel Bello said that extra troops were deployed to the city on Saturday to bolster security.
Taraba state is part of Nigeria’s volatile “Middle Belt”, where its largely Christian south and mostly Muslim north meet.
Nigeria is Africa’s top oil producer and most populous country, with an estimated 170 million people, almost evenly divided between Christians and Muslims.
Tensions have been on the rise in Wukari since February, when a dispute over the use of a football pitch between Muslim and Christian soccer teams set off sectarian riots that claimed several lives.
It also follows a surge in violence and kidnappings in the restive north of Nigeria, the epicentre of an insurgency by Boko Haram Islamists, in recent months.
In late April fighting between soldiers and Islamic fighters in the remote northeastern town of Baga left 187 dead, according to the Red Cross, in the deadliest episode since the insurgency began in 2009.
Human Rights Watch on Wednesday released satellite images showing massive destruction in Baga, voicing concern that the military has “tried to cover up” abuses that should be investigated by the International Criminal Court.
The global rights watchdog said the insurgency in north and central Nigeria by Boko Haram has claimed 3,600 lives since 2009, including killings by the security forces.
Last month the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan US government agency, said more than 100 people had been killed in clashes there since March, and it urged the government to do more to tackle what it called religious violence.