MAIDUGURI, Nigeria – A radical Islamist sect claimed responsibility Tuesday for weekend attacks that have killed at least 58 people including two lawmakers in central Nigeria, adding a new dimension to a security crisis in a region that has seen years of religious violence.
Christians "will not know peace again" if they do not accept Islam, said a statement from the Boko Haram sect obtained by The Associated Press.
The northern-based group claimed responsibility for weekend attacks in Plateau state, though some suggested they had acted with local communities.
"(Boko Haram) wants to inform the world of its delight over the success of the attacks we launched on Barkin Ladi and Riyom in Plateau state on Christians and security operatives, including members of the National Assembly," the statement said.
Hundreds of assailants armed with guns and machetes stormed a dozen Christian villages on Saturday, the army said. Some attackers wore police uniforms and bullet-proof vests, said Capt. Mustapha Saliu, a spokesman for a special unit of police and soldiers deployed to halt long-running violence in the area.
The following day, as dignitaries attended a mass burial for the victims, assailants attacked again, killing a federal senator and a state lawmaker.
The Nigerian Red Cross said late Sunday that aid workers had counted 58 bodies as they continued to search for more. An updated death toll was not immediately available Tuesday.
Initial blame quickly fell on Muslim herdsmen who often clash with Christian farmers from a different tribe.
Plateau state has been torn apart in recent years by violence pitting its different ethnic groups and major religions — Christianity and Islam — against each other. Politics and economics also fuel fighting in this region of farmlands that supply basics like potatoes, corn and tomatoes to the rest of the nation.
Nigeria, a multiethnic nation of more than 160 million people, is largely divided into a mainly Christian south and a mostly Muslim north. Violence-torn Plateau state is in the "middle belt" where the two meet. Human Rights Watch says at least 1,000 people were killed in communal clashes around the state capital, Jos, in 2010.
Pam Ayuba, spokesman for the Christian-led Plateau state government, had said he "knew" that Muslim herdsmen were responsible for the attacks, before the Islamist sect's claim of responsibility Tuesday. Even after Boko Haram's claim, Ayuba still accused the herdsmen of being involved.
Saliu had declined to say whom the security forces suspected, only that "no tribe has claimed responsibility."
Mark Lipdo, who runs the Christian advocacy Stefanos Foundation, also blamed the Muslim herdsmen.
However, Nurudeen Abdullahi, Plateau state chairman of Miyetti Allah Fulani Herdsmen Association, denied any involvement by his members.
"This is the usual propaganda used on our people but we are not the ones that attacked the villages in the area," he said.
He then accused Christian farmers of attacking Muslim settlements and stealing cows.
Boko Haram has fanned festering religious tensions in this flashpoint area over the last two years.
A bomb was defused Friday in a populated neighborhood of Jos, authorities said. They declined to say who they suspected, but Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for bomb attacks in Jos in the past.
All previously reported Jos bomb attacks have targeted churches. All sparked reprisals.
Boko Haram's first reported attack in Plateau State was multiple blasts on Christmas Day of 2010 that killed at least 32 people in Jos.
Associated Press writer Yinka Ibukun contributed to this report from Lagos, Nigeria.