Omololu Ogumade in Abuja and George Okoh in Makurdi
In another gruesome incident, Fulani herdsmen Tuesday morning attacked a catholic church at Ukpor-Mbalom in Gwer East Local Government Area of Benue State, killing two priests and 14 worshippers.
The armed herdsmen attacked the St. Ignatiusâ€™ Quasi Parish in the community when an early morning mass was in progress.
The Makurdi diocese of the Catholic Church confirmed the attack, saying two of its priests and worshippers were slain during the violent onslaught in the morning.
The attackers also burnt nearly 50 houses during the attack and sacked the entire community.
The attack occurred barely four days after the murder of 10 persons by herdsmen in Guma Local Government Area and the destruction of several houses by men suspected to be military personnel in Naka, Gwer West in the state.
Reacting to the dastardly act, President Muhammadu Buhari described as vile and satanic the slaughter of the worshippers and condoled with the government and people of Benue State.
The Makurdi diocese of the church identified the dead priests as Reverend Fathers Joseph Gor and Felix Tyolaha.
According to the director of communications of the diocese, Fr. Moses Iorapuu, the two priests were killed during the deadly attack by herdsmen/jihadists early Tuesday.
He said in their classic style, they burnt down homes, destroyed food items and killed at will.
â€œThe police seem to know nothing of the attacks which have been going on in other villages within Benue State since the Anti-Open Grazing Law came into effect last year,â€ he said.
He said many people were wondering why the international community has remained silent over the massacre of Benue citizens.
â€œThe answer is simple: It has been the goal of the jihadists to conquer Benue and Tiv people who have resisted their advance into the Middle Belt and the Eastern part of Nigeria since 1804.
â€œThese are the people (Benue indigenes) who rejected Islam and fought for the unification of Nigeria in the civil war of 1967 â€“ 1970,â€ Iorapuu added.
He said the people of Eastern Nigeria today have very little sympathy for Benue people who fought on the side of Nigeria, adding that the Muslim North was enjoying its sweet revenge, which has been overshadowed by an insensitive regime.
Iorapuu disclosed that there were over 170,000 internally displaced persons in the state before the Naka invasion, adding that surely with the current situation in Mbalom, Benue will be flooded with thousands more.
â€œWhat cannot be said at this point is the consequences of the deaths of the missionaries and the silent other killings that have been ignored by the federal government for over a year,â€ he said.
He said the catholic diocese of Makurdi, one of the largest in Nigeria, has been active in providing relief materials, including education and skills acquisition programmes for residents in the state.
â€œTo go after the priests means total destruction of everything we stand for and believe in as a people,â€ he added.
Also confirming the church attack, the Benue State Police Command said Tuesday that 16 people, including two catholic priests, were killed during the morning mass.
The Commissioner of Police, Mr. Fatai Owoseni, told newsmen in Makurdi, the state capital, that unknown gunmen, suspected to be herdsmen, opened fire on catholic worshippers during morning mass.
â€œThe worshippers were attacked around 5 a.m. during morning mass. Other victims were killed during a burial ceremony later in the day,â€ he said.
Owoseni, who described the attacks as â€œunfortunateâ€, vowed to fish out the perpetrators and bring them to justice.
He said preliminary investigations revealed that the herdsmen had been in the area for sometime before carrying out the attacks.
The police commissioner said more policemen were deployed in the area to forestall further attacks.
Reacting to the incident, the president described as vile and satanic the slaughter of innocent worshippers in Ukpor-Mbalom and condoled with the government and people of Benue State.
A statement by his media aide, Mr. Femi Adesina, said Buhari also extended his condolences to the Mbalom community, the priests and members of the affected church, describing the cruel act as despicable.
According to him, attacking a worship centre and killing priests and worshippers was satanic and capable of causing a religious crisis.
â€œI extend my sincere condolences to the government and people of Benue State, the Mbalom community, and especially the bishop, priests and members of the St. Ignatiusâ€™ Catholic Church, whose premises was the unfortunate venue of the heinous killings by gunmen.
â€œThis 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 a religious conflict and plunge our communities into endless bloodletting,â€ the president said.
Joining the president to condemn the latest killings in Benue State, former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar said on Twitter Tuesday: â€œIt was heart-rending to hear about the invasion and killing of worshippers in Benue State today. My condolences to the catholic dioceses of Benue State. May the deceased rest in peace.â€