Nigerian police said they found the bodies of 41 men with their throats cut in Zamfara state in area notorious as a hideout for criminal gangs.
Eighteen bodies were found in a river on Sunday while 23 others were discovered in a nearby forest in the Zurmi area of Zamfara state, police commissioner Kenneth Ebrimson said on Tuesday, July 3.
Police arrested four suspects after searching the bush area and also found machetes and guns, he told reporters in Gusau, the state capital.
Ebrimson said the suspects were identified as members of a widely-feared local vigilante group “who decided to carry out the extra-judicial killings.”
Police believe the victims were gang members who had been involved in cattle rustling and kidnapping.
But local residents were unable to identify any of the bodies, suggesting they were not resident in the area, Ebrimson said.
Farming and cattle herding communities in Zamfara have for years been targeted by gangs of cattle thieves and kidnappers who raid villages, steal cows and abduct locals for ransom.
In June, at least 10 people were killed by suspected cattle thieves in raids on remote villages in Zamfara.
As a hideout, the gangs use the Ruggu forest which straddles Zamfara, Katsina and Kaduna states.
The attacks have prompted villagers to form militia groups for protection but they, too, have been accused of taking the law into their own hands and killing suspected bandits.
Those killings attract reprisals from motorcycle-riding criminal gangs, who carry out indiscriminate killings and arson in retaliation.
In April the Nigerian government deployed troops to Zamfara to fight the gangs while the police outlawed the vigilantes to end the tit-for-tat killings.
Conflict between famers and herders is also a significant threat in Nigeria.
In late June, more than 200 people were killed in a weekend of violence against farming communities in Nigeria’s central Plateau state.
The conflict between central Nigeria’s herders and farmers is stoked by ethnic rivalries and access to land. Within Nigeria some commentators have sought to blame language or religious differences for the violence, as most of the Fulani herders involved in the attacks are Muslim, and most farmers are Christians from the Berom and other ethnic groups.
More than 1,000 people have been killed in such violence in Nigeria’s Middle Belt this year, eclipsing the 200 or so killed by Boko Haram.