File Photo: Security personnel stand at a female hostel at the Greenfield University in Kaduna, Nigeria, taken on April 21, 2021. AFP
Clashes between herders and farmers over access to land has plagued northwest and central Nigeria for years, with some groups evolving into criminal gangs who now terrorise local communities.
"We buried a total of 143 people killed by the bandits in the attacks," said Balarabe Alhaji, a community leader in one of the affected villages in Zamfara state.
Hundreds of motorcycle-riding gunmen rampaged through ten villages in Anka and Bukkuyum districts on Wednesday through Thursday, shooting residents and looting and burning homes, locals said.
Officials and security agencies have not yet commented on the attacks.
Babandi Hamidu, a resident of Kurfa Danya village said the militants were shooting "anyone on sight".
"More than 140 people were buried across the ten villages and the search for more bodies is ongoing because many people are unaccounted for," Hamidu said.
Idi Musa, a resident of another village, Kurfa Danya, said "the death toll is huge. We are talking of around 150 people killed by the bandits."
The bandits also stole "around 2,000 cattle," Musa added.
Another resident who only gave his first name Babangida gave a similar account.
All four sources said they were present at burials in their respective villages.
On Wednesday, the Nigerian government officially labelled bandits as terrorists, to bring tougher sanctions against convicted gunmen, their informants and supporters.
In the official gazette, the government said activities of Yan Bindiga and Yan Ta'adda -- meaning bandits in the local Hausa language -- were "acts of terrorism".
"We labelled them terrorists... we are going to deal with them as such," President Muhammadu Buhari told Nigerian TV this week.
The 79-year-old former army general is also battling a more than decade long jihadist insurgency in the northeast.
Last year, bandits made international headlines with a series of high-profile attacks on schools and colleges where they kidnapped hundreds of pupils.
Most were released but some of those students are still being held.
Military and police operations are currently on in the northwest.
Nigeria's armed forces said this week they had killed 537 "armed bandits and other criminal elements" in the region and arrested 374 others since May last year, while 452 "kidnapped civilians were rescued".
Bandits loyal to notorious gang leader Bello Turji suffered heavy losses last month in ground and air raids on their forest camps.
Security analyst Kabir Adamu, with Abuja-based Beacon Consulting Nigeria, told AFP that this week's raids could be in response to military operations.
"Angered by this, and perhaps by the fact that that they were facing certain death, (they) decided to move to other locations and in the course of this they seem to be conducting these attacks," Adamu told AFP.
Locals said the raids were in response to an attack by vigilantes on a convoy of bandits who were trying to relocate elsewhere in the state.