Gunmen armed with assault rifles attacked a rural village Sunday in northern Nigeria, killing at least 24 people, including worshippers leaving a mosque after prayers before dawn, officials said.

The attack happened in Dogon Dawa, a village deep in the pasturelands of Kaduna state where police and security forces maintain only a light presence. Police and soldiers also cut off access to the region Sunday, limiting the response of aid agencies.

A rescue official in the state who lives near the village told The Associated Press the attacks began in the early morning under the cover of darkness, with as many as 50 gunmen surrounding the village and its surrounding farmlands. The majority of those killed appeared to be leaving the village's main mosque after the early call to prayers, the official said.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of being targeted by those who carried out the attack, said a man he talked to who counted the dead in the village found 24 corpses. The official said the man in the village also found spent shell casings from assault rifles after the attack, suggesting the killers had access to heavy weaponry.

Kaduna state police commissioner Olufemi Adenaike earlier said 12 people were killed in the attack, though police in Nigeria routinely downplay casualties.

"We cannot ascertain the (total) number of people killed for now, and more over we cannot say what or who was responsible for the attack," Adenaike said. "We couldn't get immediate information from the area because the (mobile phone) network there is very poor."

While police routinely have many officers stationed throughout major cities in Nigeria, police presence in villages can sometimes be a single officer working out of someone's home.

The reasons for the attack remained unclear Sunday. The emergency official said residents already had blamed a gang of robbers who recently arrived from neighboring Zamfara state and had begun attacking villages and robbing people along the road. Dogon Dawa had formed a local vigilante committee to patrol their area and that group and the robbers had been killing each other over the course of the last weeks, the official said.

"This time around they decided to launch a reprisal attack," the official said.

However, activist Shehu Sani, who leads the Kaduna-based Civil Rights Congress, said it appeared the attack was between Muslim farmers and Muslim nomadic cattlemen who graze in the area. Tensions and violence spring up between the two groups over land rights, though not often with such an intensity.

"The spasm of violence and senseless bloodshed in the northern parts of Nigeria has reached an alarming and unacceptable level," Sani said.

Kaduna state sits on the fault line running between Nigeria's largely Christian south and Muslim north, where mass killings and violence have occurred over the last decade. After the April 2011 presidential election, protests over Christian Goodluck Jonathan winning quickly turned into ethnic and religious violence that saw hundreds killed in that state alone. There also have been church bombings and suicide car bomb attacks in the state as well, some carried out by a radical Islamist sect known as Boko Haram, which has killed more than 690 people across the country this year alone, according to an AP count.

In the northeast city of Maiduguri on Sunday, a bomb exploded near a neighborhood where a lieutenant was killed last week. That killing had set off a reprisal attack by soldiers stationed there that saw more than 30 civilians killed, residents said. The blast targeted those trying to go to a church nearby, military spokesman Lt. Col. Sagir Musa said. He did not say if anyone was injured in the blast.

Meanwhile, a traditional ruler in the city who helped gather others together in a conference calling for an end to attacks by Boko Haram was shot dead in his home Sunday afternoon, a security official said. The official said he believed Boko Haram gunmen targeted the ruler named Mala Kaka. The official spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to journalists.

The violence has embittered many living in the region and exposed the inability of Nigeria's weak central government to provide basic security in the nation of more than 160 million people.

Responding to the latest attack in Kaduna state, Sani said: "We have become a nation of unknown gunmen and absentee leaders."


Associated Press writer Haruna Umar in Maiduguri, Nigeria, and an AP writer in Kaduna, Nigeria, contributed to this report.


Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP .