Lagos, Nigeria - Local Christian and Muslim communities have clashed for years in Nigeria's middle belt and the conflict took an unexpected turn this week when Islamist insurgents based in the country's removed northeast claimed responsibility for a raid and attacks that killed dozens, signaling a dangerous change of tactics for the group. Many thought Muslim herdsmen had been behind the weekend raids on Christian villages.
Hundreds of assailants armed with guns and machetes stormed about a dozen Christian villages in the pasturelands in Plateau state in central Nigeria on Saturday, said Capt. Mustapha Saliu, a spokesman for a special unit of police and soldiers deployed to halt long-running communal violence in the area. Some attackers wore police uniforms and bullet-proof vests, he added.
The following day, as dignitaries attended a mass burial for the victims, assailants attacked again, leaving a federal senator and a state lawmaker dead. Authorities initially said the lawmakers had been ambushed and killed in the attacks, but Saliu now says they both lost consciousness and eventually died as people ran for cover while gunmen shot "in the air."
The Nigerian Red Cross said at least 58 people had died in the attacks and security forces' reprisals. They said that toll was expected to rise as aid workers searched for bodies and violence persisted in the tense region. Most of the victims are presumed to be Christians. An official who requested anonymity said that many more people had died but that casualty figures are very sensitive in that part of the country, with groups seeking revenge. He said that there had been reprisals from both sides.
A statement attributed to the Nigerian Islamist radical sect Boko Haram and obtained by The Associated Press this week said that 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 targeting Christians. Before now, they had claimed responsibility for bomb attacks on churches in the Plateau state capital of Jos as well as other cities and towns further north. They've also said in previous statements that they would avenge the deaths of Muslims in Plateau state.
Boko Haram stepping forward adds another element of danger to the conflict in Nigeria's middle belt. However, authorities say these attacks didn't use bombs or other explosives - Boko Haram's weapons of choice. Instead, the assailants chose to raid the villages which would be a dangerous extension of Boko Haram tactics. It is also a style of attack Muslim herdsmen of the Fulani tribe have used in the past.
The local violence, though fractured across religious lines, often has more to do with local politics, economics and rights to grazing lands. The government of Plateau State is controlled by Christian politicians who have blocked Muslims from being legally recognized as citizens. That has locked many out of prized government jobs in a region where the tourism industry and tin mining have collapsed in the last decades. In 2010, Human Rights Watch said that at least 1,000 people died in communal clashes. Clashes between Muslim Fulani herdsmen and Christian farmers of the Berom tribe remain common despite a state of emergency imposed on Plateau state.
Andronicus Adeyemo, an official with the Nigerian Red Cross, said that Plateau conflict has displaced nearly 4,000 people.
In most parts of Nigeria, a large-scale attack targeting Christians would have been blamed on Boko Haram, but in violence-torn Plateau state the claim raises questions, leaving analysts divided about what could have happened.
"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."
Meanwhile, Shehu Sani, activist and author of "The Killing Fields," a history of religious violence in Nigeria, disagrees.
"From my knowledge and experience about the Boko Haram group, I believe 100% that they were responsible for that act," Sani said. "I think they operated alone," he said, adding that they had deployed large number of attackers in other cities before.
Special unit spokesman Saliu said that 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 from reprisal attacks.
Boko Haram members and most Fulani herdsmen share Islam. But the ethnic composition of Boko Haram is believed to be very different from the Fulani people and Boko Haram has been known to turn against Muslims that do not share their 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 academic 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 say they are trying to determine if the attacks were carried out by Boko Haram, the Fulani herdsmen or a mix of both, the fighting communities' don't want Boko Haram's claim to distract from their local 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 that 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." He said. "We are not outlaws."
Mark Lipdo, director of the Jos-based Stefanos Foundation, 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 festering religious tensions and a history of reprisal attacks.
The sect claimed responsibility last month for coordinated church blast which authorities initially said left at least 21 people dead. As reprisals spread across the state, authorities later said the toll had risen to 98 dead.
Both Kaduna and Plateau states sit in Nigeria's middle belt, the dividing line between the predominantly Muslim north and mainly Christian south of Nigeria, a nation of 160 million people.