Justice Abdulkadir Orire, secretary general of the Jama’atu Nasril Islam, described the killings in the remote farming town as “genocide” and said they took the death toll from three months of ethnic violence there to at least 700-800 people.
“The information we have is that 300 people died and they are mostly Muslims. We call it a genocide because they are killing women and children,” Orire told Reuters in a telephone interview from his Kaduna headquarters.
The conflict between the Christian Tarok tribe and Muslim Fulani is rooted in competing claims over the fertile farmlands at the heart of Africa’s most populous nation, and it is fuelled by religious and ethnic differences between the groups.
Orire said Christian militia used machine guns in the attacks which left most of Yelwa’s buildings including a mosque destroyed, and criticised the Plateau state governor for apparently inciting violence.
He said police stationed in Yelwa had been withdrawn four days before the attack, despite complaints from local Muslims that they were surrounded by Taroks and tensions were rising.
“It seems the governor is supporting the move. We heard that the government said non-indigenes should move out of the area,” Orire said. “That is very bad. He should look after everyone in the state and not just his own tribe.”
Nigerian is the world’s seventh largest oil exporter. Ethnic fighting has hit the OPEC country’s oil production in the past, but Yelwa is hundreds of miles from any oilfields.
SHOOT ON SIGHT
A Reuters correspondent in Yelwa on Tuesday saw thousands of Muslims lining the body-strewn streets chanting religious slogans and vowing revenge on the attackers.
The state deputy governor, who visited Yelwa on Tuesday, ordered soldiers to shoot troublemakers on sight and announced a dusk-to-dawn curfew.
His heavily armed convoy, which was also carrying workers to dig mass graves, could not stop in the town because of the heightened tensions, a policeman in the convoy said.
President Olusegun Obasanjo ordered the police to send hundreds of riot police to the area.
Analysts say the feud between the Tarok farmers and nomadic Fulani cattle herders has been fuelled by irresponsible allocation of land by the government and growing lawlessness across Nigeria.
Yelwa has already witnessed one of the most horrific massacres of the conflict, when 48 Christians were killed by Fulani militia in a church that was later burned in February.
The last three months have seen the bloodiest fighting in the region since the state capital, Jos, was torn apart by ethnic violence in 2001 that killed 1,000 people.
Tens of thousands have already had to leave their homes in Plateau and thousands now live in temporary accommodation in schools and other public buildings across three states.
Ethnic, religious and political violence in Nigeria has killed more than 11,000 people since the election of Obasanjo in 1999 ended 15 years of military rule.