JOS, Nigeria - Nigeria's government on Monday sent troops to the flashpoint Jos region after attacks by machete-wielding gangs on Christian villages that officials say killed at least 500 people.
Under fire for failing to prevent another outburst of sectarian violence only weeks after hundreds died in Muslim-Christian clashes, authorities said they had arrested scores of people in connection with the attacks.
Witnesses described how the victims of Sunday's three-hour orgy of violence, most of them women and children, were caught in animal traps and fishing nets as they tried to flee their attackers, who hacked them to death.
The official death toll was initially put at a little over 100 but Dan Manjang, an advisor to the Plateau state government, said the toll had now risen substantially.
"We have been able to make 95 arrests but at the same time over 500 people have been killed in this heinous act," Dan Manjang said in a telephone interview.
Government-run radio also reported that 500 people had been slaughtered in a night raid on three villages on the fringes of Jos, capital of Plateau state.
Witnesses and local rights activists put the figure at more than 200.
"By our latest count there are 202 bodies," said Shamaki Gad Peter, head of the League for Human Rights in Jos.
Shehu Sani, another leading rights activist, spoke of 250 people having been killed.
Much of the violence was centred around the village of Dogo Nahawa where gangs from the mainly Muslim Fulani ethnic group set fire to straw-thatched mud huts before embarking on the killing rampage in the early hours of Sunday.
Frank Tatgun, a resident of Dogo Nahawa, said he had seen two armoured vehicles and three military trucks arrive in the village and scores of troops were now on patrol.
With tightened security, there were no reports of clashes overnight, he said.
Locals said the attacks were the result of a spiralling feud between the Fulani and the rival Berom clan which had started with cattle theft, which led to a deadly revenge attack.
Many of the victims were hacked to death as they tried to flee into woodland around their villages.
Witnesses said armed gangs had scared the victims out of their homes by firing into the air but most of the killings were as a result of machete attacks. Those killed were mainly women and children.
"Gunshots were fired just to scare people out of their houses only to be macheted as they fled into the bush," Peter Gyang, who lost his wife and two children, told reporters in Dogo Nahawa.
A curfew which was imposed after January's violence was supposed to be still in place but Gyang said the authorities had done nothing to prevent 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.
"We no longer have confidence in the security agencies," added Gyang.
The explosion of violence between rival ethic and religious groups in January left 326 dead in Jos, according to police although religious and human rights activists put the overall toll at more than 550.
The office of acting president Goodluck Jonathan said the security services in Plateau and neighbouring states had been placed on red alert to ensure the violence did not spread.
"He has also directed that the security services undertake strategic initiatives to confront and defeat these roving bands of killers," it added.