DOGO NAHAWA, Nigeria — The killers showed no mercy: They didn't spare women and children, or even a 4-day-old baby, from their machetes. On Monday, Nigerian women wailed in the streets as a dump truck carried dozens of bodies past burned-out homes toward a mass grave.
Hundreds of nomadic Fulani herdsmen launched the coordinated attacks on three Christian villages of Dogo Nahawa, Ratsat and Zot, just south of Jos, about 3 a.m. Sunday.
Reports on the death toll differed wildly, with some placing it at about 200 and others reporting 528 killed and thousands injured. Officials said the attack was in reprisal for violence in January, when more than 300 Muslims were slaughtered in and around Jos.
Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, is almost evenly split between Muslims in the north and the predominantly Christian south. The recent bloodshed has been happening in central Nigeria, in towns that lie along the country's religious fault line. It is Nigeria's "middle belt," where dozens of ethnic groups vie for control of fertile lands. As pastures have dried up, Muslim animal herders of the Fulani and Hausa ethnic groups are forced closer and closer to the farming communities of the Christian Berom ethnic group where their herds can destroy crops.
"Land is central to the conflict in Jos," Ugar Ukandi Odey, a Nigerian reporter who has covered the attacks, told the Christian Science Monitor. "The Beroms are the original people of Jos, and the Fulanis are nomads moving around with cattle who have settled in amongst the Berom people. But it becomes ethnic and religious, because there are Christians on one side, and the Fulanis are Muslims on the other side."
Rioting between Muslims and Christians killed more than 1,000 people in 2001, and another 700 people in 2004. More than 300 residents died during a similar uprising in 2008.
But this year's attacks have involved a more sinister pattern: carefully planned and brutal, with hundreds of villagers killed including babies, the elderly and anyone else unable to flee.
The killers on Sunday planted nets and animal traps outside huts of the villagers, mainly peasant farmers, then charged while firing weapons, according to human rights lawyer Shehu Sani of the nongovernment Civil Rights Congress, who visited the villages and interviewed dozens of survivors.
"People came out of their houses and started falling into the animal traps and mosquito nets and then they were hacked down," he said. "They were the kind of traps used for wild animals."
"Even the kind of violence is unusual, because it was not physical confrontations between Muslims and Christians. It was an ambush. The attackers killed whoever they caught. It was mostly women, who stayed behind to defend their children that became most of the victims," Sani.
One survivor, Sylvanis Mathias, said the attack was well planned.
"They fired in the air, scared people out of their houses and then attacked them with machetes as they tried to escape and then burned their bodies. They set the houses ablaze. More than half of the houses have been burned."
The Rev. Pandang Yamsat, the president of a local Christian group, said he has urged his congregation not to respond violently to Muslims. However, he said he believes that Muslims in the area want to control the region and that any peace talks would only give Muslims "time to conquer territory with swords."
"We have done our best to tell our members, 'Don't go and attack Muslims, they are your brother,' " Yamsat said. However, " 'if they come to dislodge you in your place, stand to defend yourself.' "
The scene in the villages of Ratsat and Dogo Nahawa was eerily silent Monday. Houses lay in ashes and the streets were deserted, Survivors loaded bodies on trucks for the mass burial in Dogo Nahawa.
During the burial, many survivors wept and some pounced on a local Muslim journalist, witnesses said. Police had to fire shots to disperse the crowds and rescue the journalist, who, according to witnesses, was punched, kicked and nearly pushed into the mass grave.
Information from the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times was used in this report.