Two priests were among at least 18 people killed in an early morning attack on a church in central Nigeria, police said on Tuesday.
Around 30 suspected herdsmen attacked Mbalom community in the volatile region killing the worshippers and the two priests, said Benue state police commissioner Fatai Owoseni in the state capital of Makurdi.
“They attacked the venue of a burial ceremony and also attacked the church where the two reverend fathers were holding mass,” said Owoseni.
“We were able to recover 16 bodies from the scene of the attack and those of the two priests.”
Worshippers were gathered for the daily 5:30 am (0430GMT) service at St. Ignatius Catholic church when they heard gunshots, said Mbalom resident Terhemen Angor to AFP.
“People started scampering and wailing,” said Angor, saying that scores were “gunned down in cold blood while many sustained injuries including bullet wounds.”
“After attacking the church, the invaders descended on the community and razed over 60 houses,” he said.
“The community is on fire and deserted, people are fleeing to neighbouring villages hoping to find a safe haven for their families.”
The Catholic Diocese of Makurdi confirmed the death of priests Joseph Gor and Felix Tyolaha in a statement condemning the violence.
Central Nigeria is in the grip of a security crisis as nomadic herders and sedentary farmers fight over land in an increasingly bloody battle for resources.
The conflict is now more deadly than the Boko Haram jihadist insurgency that has ravaged Nigeria’s northeast and is becoming a key issue in the upcoming 2019 presidential polls.
Benue state lies in Nigeria’s so-called Middle Belt that separates the predominantly Muslim north from the largely Christian south.
It has long been a hotbed of ethnic, sectarian and religious tension.
President Muhammadu Buhari, who is seeking a second term, has been under pressure to end the violence and ordered in military reinforcements.