KADUNA, Nigeria: A gang disguised in police uniforms opened fire on worshippers at a mosque in northern Nigeria on Sunday, killing at least 21 people, officials and residents said.
The military and locals said the pre-dawn raid in the village of Dogon Dawa in Kaduna state was carried out by armed robbers engaged in a running feud with a local vigilante group.
Having been repelled by the community militia last week, the gang returned on Sunday, storming the mosque as people readied for early morning prayers, killing some victims inside the building and some outside.
"We have 21 killed. Several others have been taken to the hospital with injuries," said Musa Illela of the National Emergency Management Agency in Kaduna.
Religiously divided Kaduna has been rocked by waves of sectarian violence in recent months.
Suicide bombings at three churches in June that were claimed by Islamist group Boko Haram sparked reprisal violence by Christian mobs who killed dozens of their Muslim neighbours, burning some of their victims' bodies. Muslim groups also formed mobs and killed several Christians.
Boko Haram, blamed for killing more than 1,400 people in Nigeria since 2010, has repeatedly targeted the state and also attacked Muslim leaders it accuses of not supporting its hardline interpretation of
But military spokesman Colonel Sani Usman told AFP that Sunday's shooting was "a clear case of armed robbery," and described it as a "revenge" attack linked to the rivalry between the thieves and the vigilantes.
Asked about a potential religious element in the shootings, he said only that "the victims were coming from prayers" at the mosque.
Village resident Dauda Maikudi told AFP that thieves regularly target the area as Dogon Dawa lies not far from a main road used by traders carrying goods and cash between the north and south of Africa's most populous country.
"It was a pre-dawn raid," he said. "The attackers... some of them dressed in police uniform, came into the village. They killed eight worshippers in the mosque and killed 13 other residents in the village."
"We believe they were armed robbers because this area has been bedevilled by armed robbers for years," he added.
A local leader, who requested anonymity for security reasons, said he supported Maikudi's description of the attackers' disguises.
The local leader said Dogon Dawa's vigilante force has had a series of clashes with the area's criminal groups. He said the gunmen struck just before Sunday morning's call to prayer.
Dogon Dawa lies about 70 kilometres (40 miles) from the state capital Kaduna city.
Violent robbery is common on Nigeria's notoriously dangerous major roadways, with attackers often setting up roadblocks and targeting their victims under the cover of darkness.
Commenting on the latest violence, Kaduna-based rights activist Shehu Sani said Nigeria had "become a nation of unknown gunmen and absentee leaders".
"The spasm of violence and senseless bloodshed in the northern parts of Nigeria has reached an alarming and unacceptable level," he further said.
He noted that arrests and trials rarely follow gruesome massacres in the north, warning that "this impunity has created a climate of fear" across the region.
Sani, who is an expert on religious violence in northern Nigeria, gave no indication that the mosque shooters were motivated by a religious rivalry.
Nigeria, Africa's top oil producer, is roughly divided between a mainly north and mostly Christian south.