JOS, Nigeria – Christian youths attacked a car full of Muslims returning from a wedding in central Nigeria, killing seven people inside the vehicle and sparking retaliatory violence that left one other person dead, an official said Saturday.
It was the latest unrest in a fertile region that saw more than 500 people killed last year in massacres pitting Christians against Muslims.
On Saturday, gunshots echoed through the troubled city of Jos, causing store owners to close their shops and families to hide inside their homes.
The violence began as Christian youths blocked a road leading from a neighboring village Friday night, trapping the Muslims inside their car, said lawyer Ahmed Garba, a member of an Islamic religious council. Garba told journalists Saturday that seven people died in the attack and one person survived.
Garba said once news of the attack spread, Muslims began retaliatory violence in the streets of Jos that has left at least one person dead.
Plateau state police commissioner Abdurrahman Akano denied that there was any retaliatory violence, saying the movement of activists from a local political party Saturday caused residents to panic. He did not offer any explanation to journalists about the gunfire heard in the city.
Akano said one person died Friday of a stab wound, but offered no other details about that attack.
Manassie Panpe, the Red Cross' state secretary, said officials from the aid organization had found several injured people in the streets Saturday but that information remained scarce.
Nigeria, an oil-rich country of 150 million people, is almost evenly split between Muslims in the north and the predominantly Christian south. Jos is in the nation's "middle belt," where dozens of ethnic groups vie for control of fertile lands.
The Jos violence, though fractured across religious lines, often has more to do with local politics, economics and rights to grazing lands. The government of Plateau state, where Jos is the capital, is controlled by Christian politicians who have blocked Muslims from being legally recognized as citizens. That has locked many out of prized government jobs in a region where the tourism industry and tin mining have collapsed in the last decades.
On Christmas Eve, two bombs went off near a large market in Jos where people were doing last-minute Christmas shopping. A third hit a mainly Christian area of Jos, while the fourth was near a road that leads to the city's main mosque.
Officials initially said at least 32 died from the blasts, while an official with the National Emergency Management Agency told journalists that he had counted 80 deaths from the explosions and the retaliatory violence that followed.
An Internet message attributed to a radical Muslim sect known in northern Nigeria as Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the bomb attacks. However, the sect had never carried out an attack in that region before.