(CNN) — At least 19 people were killed Tuesday after gunmen opened fire at a church in Nigeria’s Middle Belt, police said.
Two priests and 17 worshippers were killed when armed men, believed to be cattle herders, stormed a Catholic church during early morning Mass on Tuesday in a remote village in Benue state.
State police spokesman Terver Akase told CNN the attackers, thought to be Fulani herdsmen, set many homes on fire.
“The herdsmen burnt nearly 50 houses during the attack and sacked the entire community, ” Akase told CNN. “We expect arrests to be made because they (attackers) are becoming more brazen,” he added.
According to Akase, 10 residents were killed by armed men a few days before Tuesday’s attack.
Violent clashes between the Fulani herdsmen, who are mostly Muslims, and farmers, who are predominantly Christians, in the central state dates to 2013, according to local media reports.
Cattle herders have evicted farmers by initiating deadly attacks in Nigeria’s Middle Belt, media reports say.
At least 72 people were killed in January following weeks of clashes between nomadic herdsmen and farmers in the central part of the West African country.
Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari who visited the state last month to console families and communities that suffered from violent clashes, vowed those involved in Tuesday’s attack will be apprehended and brought to justice.
“This latest assault on innocent persons is particularly despicable. Violating a place of worship, killing priests and worshippers is not only vile, evil and satanic, it is clearly calculated to stoke up religious conflict and plunge our communities into endless bloodletting,” Buhari said in a tweet.
A local Benue group expressed concerns over the increased spate of killings, calling for an “end to senseless slaughter of unarmed defenseless people” in the country.
“We call on all humane persons and groups around the world to come to the aid of our farming and worship communities and end these terror attacks across Nigeria and especially in Benue, our food basket, which also threatens our collective food security,” the Benue Valley Professional Network said in a statement.