KADUNA, Nigeria — Representatives of a Shiite Muslim sect in northwestern Nigeria said on Tuesday that hundreds of its members were killed by the military in a massacre over the weekend.
The government has disputed the death toll, acknowledging that at least seven members of the sect were killed but refusing to provide updated casualty figures. Still, the killings appeared to add a dangerous new dimension to the sectarian violence that has long bedeviled Nigeria.
The government has been battling an insurgency in northeastern Nigeria by Boko Haram, a Sunni Muslim extremist group, for years. Shiites, by contrast, are a tiny minority of the country’s Muslims.
On Tuesday, a leading human rights advocate, Chidi Odinkalu, called the killings of members of the Shiite sect a “massacre,” while the Iranian news media reported that Iran’s government, which sees itself as a protector of Shiites worldwide, had demanded an explanation.
A comedy showcase in Lagos, Nigeria, in October. Stand-up comedy is booming in the country.Nigeria’s Comics Pull Punch Lines From Deeper Social IllsDEC. 5, 2015
Abdullahi Tumburkai, a Shiite journalist, said he had counted more than 830 bodies in the mortuary in Zaria, the headquarters of the sect, called the Islamic Movement in Nigeria.
A spokesman for the sect, Ibrahim Musa, said that as many as 1,000 of its members had been killed, and accused the army of covering up the death toll, saying that soldiers had been taking the bodies of the dead to an “unknown destination.”
At a news conference here on Monday, an army commander, Maj. Gen. Adeniyi Oyebade, said that soldiers opened fire on Saturday after members of the sect threatened a convoy that was taking the army’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Tukur Buratai, on an official visit to an emir in the region.
“They started throwing dangerous missiles, stones, machete and all kinds of traditional or crude weapons,” General Oyebade said of the sect’s members, adding that security forces concluded that General Buratai’s life “was under threat, and they had no other option than to force their way through the blockage, including the use of lethal weapons.”
General Oyebade said the army acted “within the rules of engagement permissible by law.”
At the news conference, the police commissioner for Kaduna State, which includes Zaria, blamed the sect for provoking the bloodshed, saying its members had no regard for the government and had failed to inform security forces of what he called their “procession.”
But human rights advocates have denounced the killings as an overreaction by the military, which has been accused of many abuses — including torture and extrajudicial killings — during the fight against Boko Haram.
The founder of the sect, Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky, 62, was detained on Sunday as clashes between security forces and sect members continued.
As photos of a bloodied Sheikh Zakzaky circulated on social media, there were reports of protests by Shiites in cities across Nigeria, while members of his sect blocked a highway linking the capital, Abuja, with Zaria to the north.
An army spokesman, Col. Sani Kukasheka Usman, said that Sheikh Zakzaky and his wife and son were being held in protective custody — not killed, as rumors circulating online had reported.
Beyond Nigeria’s borders. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, called his Nigerian counterpart, Geoffrey Onyeama, for an explanation, according to Iranian news media.
Iranian news agencies quoted a Foreign Ministry official seeking “clarification of the aspects of the incident, treatment of the injured and atonement for the damages.” The agencies reported that people had gathered outside the Nigerian Embassy in Tehran and outside the United Nations office in the holy city of Mashhad to protest the killings.
Some residents of Kaduna, the state that includes Zaria, said that the Shiite sect had all but taken control of the area, where the government’s presence is weak.
“You dare not question their authority,” said a lecturer at Kaduna Polytechnic, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. “Let me tell you, many residents in Zaria are now jubilating not because Shiite sect members have been killed, but because they are running a parallel government in the city.”
However, Shehu Sani, an author and human rights activist who was elected to the Nigerian Senate this year, called the killings “an indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force.” He said that the military, by refusing to provide clarity on what had happened, was “aiding and abetting a clear and undisguised abuse of fundamental human rights.”
In a statement on Tuesday, Mr. Sani said that killings are “not the legal, civilized and proportionate response to ‘road blockage.’ ”
He added that northern Nigeria has “in the last seven years been neck deep in violence and soaked in blood. Opening a new front will not augur well for the peace and stability of Nigeria.”
Sewell Chan contributed reporting from Paris, Thomas Erdbrink from Tehran, and Musikilu Mojeed from Abuja, Nigeria.