Armed Fulani herdsmen unleashed terror on Ayar Mbalom community in the Gwer East Local Government Area of Benue State on Tuesday, killing 19 persons, including two Rev. Fathers.
The deceased Rev Fathers were identified as Fr. Joseph Gor and Felix Tyolaha.
Also among the victims were two school head teachers and a secondary school principal, identified as Peter Dick, Ape Chia and Michael Tor, respectively.
It was gathered that the Catholic faithful had gone for morning mass around 5.30am and unknown to them, the militia herdsmen had laid ambush in the community.
The armed men later surrounded the church and killed all the early callers in the church.
The herdsmen were said to have set ablaze houses in the village, shooting indiscriminately as villagers fled.
Our correspondents learnt the attackers burnt down over 100 houses during the attack.
The Tuesday attack came barely four days after the murder of 10 persons by herdsmen in the Guma LGA, and the destruction of houses in the Naka, Gwer LGA by men suspected to be military personnel who claimed to be searching for killers of a soldier.
Last Wednesday, the Acting Governor of the state, Mr. Benson Abounu, had raised the alarm of planned attacks on five communities in the state.
Abounu had said, “We have received security reports which indicated that a large number of armed mercenaries have moved into Benue valley and had mapped out five different locations in the state to launch attacks on five communities.
“The reports showed that the mercenaries would carry out the attacks on the communities occupied by people in the riverine areas of the state.”
One of the natives of Gwer LGA, who spoke to our correspondent on the telephone on condition of anonymity said the death toll could rise.
He said, “The numbers (19) are the ones we are taking to mortuary right now (3.27pm). The victims include two priests, two head teachers and the principal of a secondary school in Ayar.
“We left people behind who were searching the bush around the village. They could find more bodies,” he said.
Confirming the attack on the church, The Director of Communications, Catholic Diocese of Makurdi, Rev. Father Moses Iorapuu, said, “Rev. Father Joseph Gor and Rev. Father Felix Tyolaha have been killed in the deadly attack by herdsmen/Jihadists early today (Tuesday) in St. Ignatius Quasi parish in Ukpor-Mbalom in Mbalom village.”
Iorapuu, who stated that the herdsmen also burnt down homes, destroyed foodstuffs, said, “to go for the priests means total destruction of everything we stand for and believe in as a people.”
“The police seem to know nothing of the attacks which have been going on in other villages in Benue State since the Anti-Open Grazing Law came into effect last year.
“Many people are asking why the international community has remained silent over the massacre of Benue citizens.
“The answer is simple: It has been the goal of the Jihadists to conquer Benue and Tiv people who resisted their advance into the Middle Belt and the Eastern part of Nigeria since 1804; they are people who rejected Islam and fought for the unification of Nigeria in the civil war of 1967 – 1970.”
According to the Catholic spokesman, the people of Eastern Nigeria have little sympathy for Benue people who fought on the side of Nigeria, adding that the Muslim North is enjoying a sweet revenge overshadowed by an insensitive regime.
He noted there were over 170,000 internally displaced persons before the Naka invasion, adding that with the situation on the ground in Mbalom, Benue would be flooded with thousands more.
“What cannot be said at this point is the consequences of the death of missionaries in the killings that have been ignored by the government for over a year.
“The Catholic Diocese of Makurdi, which is one of the largest dioceses in Nigeria, has been active in providing relief materials, including education and skills acquisition lessons, to victims of the attacks,” he added.
Our correspondents reported that there was apprehension in Makurdi, the capital of Benue State.
The situation reportedly became tense when the remains of the two Rev. Fathers were brought to St. Theresa Catholic Hospital morgue, High Level, Makurdi.
Following the tense atmosphere in the area, leaders of Wurukum and Wadatta markets in the capital city were forced to close the market while traders rushed out of the area for fear of breakdown of law and order.
The Commissioner of Police, Benue State Police Command, CP Fatai Owoseni, said that some armed men suspected to be Fulani herdsmen numbering about 30 attacked a church, killing two priests and others.
“Immediately we got this information, we quickly moved there for an aerial surveillance in pursuit of the attackers.
“We also went to the church where this incident happened. That was where we were told that the attackers came by 5am, went into the church, the venue of a burial Mass that was going on.
“These attackers were about 30 in numbers and the target was the priest and the venue of the burial. As of the time l left the place, we were able to see 16 dead bodies, including those of the two priests.
“The police have taken over the corpses and we have deployed men in the village.
“We will intensify our search to go after these people wherever they may hide. We will also work on the information from the members of the public there because we believe that they must have been hanging in the area to have been able to commit the act at 5am. We believe that they would still be in the village.
The acting governor expressed concern, saying the attack was well planned, coordinated and executed.
“This is another black day in Benue. Benue is under siege. We have been attacked from all corners and this is unacceptable.
“The police have been able to recover 16 corpses but one had earlier on been brought to Makurdi,” Abounu said.
Meanwhile, the killing of the two Catholic priests and worshippers has sparked off protests across the state, particularly Makurdi.
While the corpses of the victims were being driven to town, a large number of youths took over the major roads and streets, including the busy Makurdi/Gboko, Makurdi/Kafia, as well as the Wurukum Roundabout.
The irate youths also set bonfires on major streets in Makurdi metropolis.
All the major markets including Makurdi Modern Market, Wurukum Market, Wadata Market and High Level Market, as well as commercial banks and schools were shut.
Many parents rushed to schools of their children to take them home.
Though there was a large number of security agencies in the state capital, residents still entertained fears of further attacks and called on the state government to protect lives and property of the people.