Kano - Marine police in Nigeria were on Thursday scouring a river in the central eastern state of Taraba after a boat believed to be carrying more than 100 women and children capsized.
The vessel overturned on Tuesday near the Muslim village of Dampar as it transported people fleeing sectarian violence that left at least 12 dead and saw homes razed, residents said.
Gunmen thought to be from the Christian Tarok militia in neighbouring Plateau state shot dead the boat's skipper as he ferried frightened locals to the other side of the river.
The chairman of Ibbi local government area, Isyaku Adamu, told AFP: “We received reports that over 100 women and children drowned in Dampar when their boat capsized while trying to escape.
“It is difficult to establish the death toll because no one took count of the victims who just poured into the (boat) in a frantic effort to save their lives.”
Adamu said marine police were searching for bodies but details on the progress of the operation were not immediately available.
Dampar resident Bashir Umar said: “The boat was packed with more than 100 women and children when it capsized and none of them has been found.
“There was a confused struggle by the frightened passengers when the driver was deliberately shot by the Tarok gunmen which caused the boat to capsize.”
Umar's account was supported by two other locals.
Adamu said the remoteness of the village, which is only accessible by boat, made independent verification of the claims difficult.
“Dampar is more than two hours by speedboat and four hours by road from Ibbi, which makes it extremely difficult to verify all the stories coming from the area,” he said.
“There is no doubt there was an attack in Dampar and women and children drowned while trying to escape but what is not certain is the number of victims involved.”
Taraba state government was deploying a permanent military and police team to the area to put an end to the long-standing feud between the two groups, which has seen villages raided.