The death toll from attacks on villages in Nigeria’s Plateau state has soared to 154 and an estimated 4,800 people have fled their homes fearing further violence.
Villagers were attacked by gunmen on motorbikes who shot sporadically into homes and businesses during the rampage on Sunday in central Plateau state.
Houses and shops were burned to the ground and people who tried to flee and hide were pursued and shot, their bodies only being discovered in past days, local officials said.
“All in all we have in our records [the number] of those killed at 154, including those found in bushes,” said Ya’u Abubakar, a senior councillor of Garga rural district in the Kanem local government area of Plateau.
The death toll is now three times higher than initially reported.
Abubakar said mass burials were under way as shocked communities in the area tried to come to terms with the slaughter. Soldiers have been deployed to pursue the gunmen.
Nigeria’s Information Minister Lai Mohammed told reporters that armed criminal gangs and Boko Haram fighters were responsible for the attacks.
“What is happening now is that there is a kind of an unholy handshake between bandits and Boko Haram insurgents,” the minister said.
Locally known as bandits, these criminals gangs have terrorised villagers for years through kidnappings for ransom. They have recently become more brutal, killing and pillaging communities where state security agents are rarely seen. Such attacks are not common in Plateau state, officials said.
More than 4,800 people have fled from their homes following the attacks on the five villages in central Plateau state.
Nigeria’s Minister of Humanitarian Affairs Sadiya Umar Farouq said she ordered immediate deployment of relief materials including food, water, blankets and sleeping nets to the displaced victims.
“Five communities including Kyaram, Gyambau, Dungur, Kukawa, Shuwaka villages under Garga District were attacked … scores were reportedly killed during the mayhem,” a spokeswoman for the minister said.
“The number of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) are said to be over 4,800, comprising mostly women and children,” the spokeswoman added in a statement.
Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country with 206 million people, has been battling violence in its troubled north.
An alliance between the criminal and rebel groups could worsen the crisis, said Oluwole Ojewale of the Africa-focused Institute of Security Studies.
The partnership between the groups “might drive further attacks on innocent civilians and state infrastructure,” as the fighters move their rebellion beyond the northeast where they had been largely restricted for many years, Ojewale said.