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Suspected herdsmen kill 18 in church attack in central Nigeria

(Reuters/Afolabi Sotunde)People react as a truck carries the coffins of people killed by the Fulani herdsmen, in Makurdi, Nigeria January 11, 2018.

At least 18 people, including two priests, were killed after suspected herdsmen carried out an attack on a church in Nigeria's Benue state.

The attack was carried out by around 30 suspected herdsmen in the Mbalom community at dawn on Tuesday, according to 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," Owoseni said, as reported by Agence France Presse (AFP).

"We were able to recover 16 bodies from the scene of the attack and those of the two priests," he added.

Mbalom resident Terhemen Angor noted that the parishioners were at the St. Ignatius Catholic church for the daily 5:30 a.m. service when the gunshots were heard.

"People started scampering and wailing," Angor narrated, adding that several people were "gunned down in cold blood while many sustained injuries including bullet wounds."

Angor further noted that the assailants had razed over 60 houses after the attack on the church. "The community is on fire and deserted, people are fleeing to neighbouring villages hoping to find a safe haven for their families," he added.

The Catholic Diocese of Makurdi identified the two slain priests as Joseph Gor and Felix Tyolaha.

In a statement reportedly posted earlier on Facebook, Gor had expressed concern about attacks by Fulani herdsmen.

"Living in fear. The fulani herdsmen are still around us in Mbalom. They refuse to go. They still go grazing around us. No weapons to depend on ourselves," Gor reportedly wrote, according to Crux.

The attacks by Fulani herdsmen have been common in Nigeria's "Middle Belt," with most of the victims being Christian farmers. Since the beginning of the year, the herdsmen have reportedly killed more than 100 people.

The Anti Open Grazing Law was enacted in Benue State last year in an apparent attempt to stop the disputes between herdsmen and farmers, but the conflicts have continued.

Father Moses Iorapuu, the Director of Communications for the Diocese of Makurdi, expressed concern that the attacks would cause thousands to be displaced.

President Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim of a Fulani descent, has been accused of failing to stop the violence committed by the herdsmen because he belongs to the same ethnic group.

In a statement, the president condemned the latest incident, saying the attacks on places of worship were planned to "stoke up religious conflict and plunge our communities into endless bloodletting."

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