The attack happened before dawn on Sunday morning when gangs of men descended on several mainly Christian villages near the central city of Jos, firing guns as they approached. Witnesses of the attack, which centred on the village of Dogo-Nahawa, described how victims were caught in animal traps and fishing nets as they tried to flee their attackers.
Nigeria's security forces have been put on high alert after a new burst of sectarian violence left over 500 people dead, most of them women and children hacked to death by machete wielding gangs.
A resident of Dogo-Nahawa said that the attackers had fired guns as they entered the village, to lure their victims out of their houses. "The shooting was just meant to bring people from their houses and then when people came out they started cutting them with machetes," said Peter Gyang, who lost his wife and two children .
Dan Manjang, a state government advisor, confirmed that 500 people had been killed. "We have been able to make 95 arrests but at the same time over 500 people have been killed in this heinous act ... by Fulani herdsmen," Mr Manjang said in a telephone interview.
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Nigeria's central Plateau State was also quoted on national radio saying 500 people had been massacred in a night raid on three villages on the fringes of Jos.
An aid worker with the Christian charity Stefanus Foundation, Mark Lipdo, told the BBC he went to the villages of Zot and Dogo-Nahawa after daylight on Sunday and recorded the names of 77 victims. He said that there were at least two dozen more bodies. "We saw mainly those who are helpless, like small children and then the older men, who cannot run, these were the ones that were slaughtered," he said, adding that Zot had been almost wiped out.
An unnamed government official said that over 100 people had been killed, mostly women and children. "Some of the children are less than one year old," he added.
In Dogo-Nahawa alone, a journalist counted a total of 103 bodies amid the smouldering embers.
But the raiders also set fire to dozens of houses in the nearby villages of Ratsat and Zot, all less than seven miles (11 km) from Jos and home to members of the Berom ethnic group.
Ratsat resident David Daniel Daniel said: "These villages were attacked by Fulani herdsmen killing scores of people and burning houses."
Other residents and local rights activists also blamed the attacks on the Fulani ethnic group.
In Jos, Yusuf Alkali, a member of the Fulani ethic group, said he believed the attacks were a reprisal for the killings of four herdsmen two weeks ago when a Fulani settlement was attacked by ethnic Berom youths.
But analysts said that the attack seemed to be in reprisal for the violent clashes in Jos between Christians and Muslims in January, which claimed the lives of at least 300 people and displaced thousands of others.
Acting President Goodluck Jonathan "has placed all the security services in Plateau (State) and neighbouring states on red alert so as to stem any cross border dimensions to this latest conflict," his office said in a statement. "He has also directed that the security services undertake strategic initiatives to confront and defeat these roving bands of killers," it added.
Dan Manjang, an advisor to the Plateau state government confirmed that troops had been deployed to the area.
But traumatised residents accused local officials of having turned a blind eye to the bloodshed. "The operation started around 3:00 am (0200 GMT) and lasted till 6:00 am and there were gunshots, but we did not see a single policeman," Mr Gyang added. "We no longer have confidence in the security agencies."
This central region of Nigeria had been a regular ethnic and religious flashpoint.
Jos has been under a dusk-to-dawn curfew since the January riots, which human rights activists claim killed over 550 people, although the official figure was 326.
In November 2008, the federal government sent in the troops after Christians and Muslims fought each other using firearms and machetes in clashes that followed a contested election in Jos.
Official figures put the death toll at 200, but rights groups Human Rights Watch said it was more than 700.
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