POTISKUM, Nigeria – Robbers angered by a crowd burning one of their colleagues alive attacked a cattle market in northeast Nigeria, killing at least 34 people in the latest violence fanning across the bloodied region, witnesses and an official said Thursday.
The casualty figure could be higher from the attack in Potiskum, a town in Nigeria's Yobe state, as Muslim mourners often quickly bury their dead without taking bodies to authorities. Officials also offered differing death tolls and accounts of what happened, a sign of the confusion now gripping leaders across Nigeria's north as it faces increasing attacks from a radical Islamist sect responsible for hundreds of deaths this year alone.
The violence began Wednesday, as witnesses said gunmen started shooting at the market in Potiskum, a city 575 kilometers (350 miles) northeast of Nigeria's central capital, Abuja. Three people were killed in the ensuing gunfire, which ended when the attackers ran out of ammunition, witnesses said.
All but one of the gunmen escaped. Those gathered in the market beat the gunmen left behind before dousing him in gasoline and lighting him on fire, a punishment still meted out by mobs in a nation where few trust the under-equipped and corrupt federal police force.
As the market closed for the night, the gunmen returned, setting fire to cattle holding pens and cars parked around the area. By Thursday morning, only the metal skeletons of cars and the burnt ashes of the pens remained on the arid soil. Dead cattle, apparently hacked to death by attackers with machetes, lay atop the charred ground.
Potiskum General Hospital, the only major medical facility in the town, took in 34 corpses from the attack, an official there said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to journalists. An Associated Press journalist later saw about a dozen charred corpses lining an open-air morgue, with mourners and the curious outside pressing against windows looking in at the dead.
Nwakpa O. Nwakpa, a spokesman for the Nigerian Red Cross, said at least 33 people were wounded in the attack and needed medical attention. A spokesman for Nigeria's National Emergency Management Agency said officials were trying to reach the rural town and offer assistance while taking a survey of the damage.
Yobe state police spokesman Toyin Gbadegeshin said the toll in the attack might rise, as many of those wounded remained in serious condition after the attack.
However, confusion surrounded how many people were killed in the attack. Abdullahi Bego, a spokesman for Yobe state Gov. Ibrahim Gaidam, said those in the market told authorities at least 60 people died in the attack. Nwakpa said the Red Cross wouldn't release any casualty figures. Security forces in Nigeria traditionally offer lower death tolls to downplay the severity of attacks, while politicians and activists give higher tolls to get more relief materials and government funding.
Gbadegeshin also blamed the attacks on the Islamist sect known as Boko Haram, which is waging an increasingly bloody sectarian fight in Nigeria. Witnesses of Wednesday's attack, however, said the robber burned alive by the angry crowd begged for his life in Igbo, a language of Nigeria's Christian southeast.
Boko Haram, blamed for more than 480 killings this year alone, has carried out attacks in Potiskum before. The area is also part of a region that President Goodluck Jonathan put under emergency rule due to sect attacks, which gives military and police additional powers. However, the cattle market attack shows the limits of power the nation's weak central government faces in dealing with violence in its rural lands.
Cattle raids remain common across the north, as herdsmen lead teams across the arid plains to market. While attacks there often cuts across ethnic and religious lines, the root of the violence often comes back to grazing rights and political power. The markets also see buyers carry hundreds of dollars in cash at one time in Nigeria's impoverished north, a lucrative target for armed robbers.
Haruna Umar reported from Maiduguri, Nigeria. Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell in Lagos, Nigeria contributed to this report.