JOS, Nigeria (Reuters) - Youths hacked to death three Muslim herders in central Nigeria on Saturday and burned their bodies, days after a curfew was lifted in a region where hundreds have died in religious violence this year.
Military officials said the three herders from the Muslim Fulani ethnic group were searching for lost cattle when they were set upon by Christian Berom villagers in Tusung, some 40 km (25 miles) south of the Plateau state capital, Jos.
A Reuters witness saw three bodies, slashed with what appeared to be machete blows and burned beyond recognition, at the Nigerian Air Force hospital in Jos, where they were brought from Tusung by soldiers.
“The three Fulani men were said to have contacted some soldiers to escort them to search for their lost cows,” one senior military official said.
“But from nowhere, Berom youths armed to the teeth appeared and started unleashing havoc,” he said, adding three soldiers who were under orders not to shoot following the end of the curfew were also injured.
Plateau state government lifted the night-time curfew on Wednesday. It had first been imposed in November 2008 during post-election violence in Jos but was extended in January following clashes between Christian and Muslim gangs.
The federal authorities deployed troops to Jos after hundreds of people died in January but the military presence and curfew were not enough to prevent further outbreaks of violence in March and April, in which hundreds more people died.
Over the past decade, thousands of people have died in religious and ethnic violence in the “Middle Belt” of central Nigeria, where the Muslim north meets the predominantly Christian south.
The tension is rooted in decades of resentment between indigenous groups, mostly Christian or animist, who are vying for control of fertile farmlands and for economic and political power with migrants and settlers from the north.
President Goodluck Jonathan, who was sworn in as head of state on May 6 following the death of president Umaru Yar’Adua, has said ensuring peace and stability is a priority.
But analysts fear local political rivals may seek to exploit the divisions in Plateau state in the run-up to nationwide elections due by next April.
Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Janet Lawrence