ABUJA - Cattle herders killed 82 people and wounded 25 in a village in central Nigeria over grazing rights, police said on Tuesday, less than two weeks before a national election in which political and ethnic tensions are running high.

Police went on Monday to investigate the attack by Muslim Fulani herdsmen on the mostly Christian Egba ethnic group at the weekend in the remote village Agatu Iga in Benue state, in the flashpoint ‘Middle Belt’ of Africa’s most populous nation. Hundreds have been killed in the past year in clashes between the semi-nomadic, cattle-herding Fulani and the more settled communities that practice a mix of farming and cattle rearing.

There was no indication the attack had anything to do with Islamist militant group Boko Haram, which has killed thousands in a six-year insurgency mostly in the far north of Nigeria. ‘It is the longstanding issue over grazing rights and cattle rustling between Egba and Fulani people,’ police spokesman Ezeala Austin said by telephone.

Fears are that tensions in the Middle Belt could be exploited by politicians if the presidential election on March 28 is disputed, triggering deadly unrest, as happened in 2011. The vote pits incumbent Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from the south, against former military leader Muhammadu Buhari, a northern Muslim.

However, Interior Minister Abba Moro told national radio on Tuesday, ‘The killings in Egba have nothing to do with the upcoming elections.’ ‘From the latest report available to the police command, 82 people were killed in the attack on Egba village by suspected Fulani herdsmen’, Austin Ezeani told AFP.

‘Twenty-five people were also injured and are receiving treatment in hospital. ‘Initially 45 people were reported to have been killed in the violence but the death toll kept mounting as rescue search progressed,’ he added.

No arrests have been made following the violence on Sunday, which saw large numbers of gunmen storm the village armed with AK47 assault rifles. A local lawmaker from the area, Audu Sule, previously said that some 50 people were killed, including women and children, before the gunmen fled into the bush.

Violence over grazing rights is common in Nigeria, pitting herdsmen against farmers and frequently resulting in deadly clashes and reprisal attacks. Benue state falls in Nigeria’s so-called ‘Middle Belt’, where the mainly Christian south meets the majority Muslim north, and has been the site of waves of sectarian violence in recent years.

Moreover, The Nigerian army said on Tuesday it had repelled Boko Haram from all but three local government districts in the northeast, claiming victory for its offensive against the Islamist insurgents less than two weeks before a presidential election. At the start of this year, Boko Haram controlled around 20 local government areas, a territory the size of Belgium, in its bloody six-year-old campaign to carve out an Islamic state in religiously mixed Nigeria.

But a concerted push by Nigeria’s military and neighbours Chad, Cam-eroon and Niger has regained considerable ground. At the weekend, Nigerian governmentforces recaptured the city of Bama, the second biggest in northeasterly Borno state.

‘We have three local governments remaining, Abadam, Kala-Balge and Gwoza, and we are optimistic that with time we will liberate those,’ Lieutenant-GeneralTobiah Minimah, the army chief of staff, told reporters. President Goodluck Jonathan, who is running for re-election, had been criticised for not doing enough to tackle the insurgency.

His challenger, Muhammadu Buhari, has been campaigning on his reputation for being tough on security matters when he was military ruler of Nigeria in the 1980s.

It is not clear how much impact the military advances will boost Jonathan’s election chances in the tightly fought race. The militants were progressively chased out of Adamawa and Yobe states since the start of the year, and cornered into an ever shrinking area of Borno, the heartland of their insurgency. The elections were postponed in February until March 28, with the military citing Boko Haram as warranting the delay. The electoral commission plans to set up polling booths in camps for the more than a million Nigerians displaced by the fighting, but there are fears that potentially millions of people may be unable to vote in areas affected by the violence.

Asked whether the vote could hold in the recaptured areas, Minimah said that would be up to the electoral commission. ‘The areas have been liberated, but structures of governance will need to be reinstated so citizens can go back to their areas and (vote). How soon? I don’t know.’

Boko Haram’s worsening atrocities against civilians hit international headlines in April last year, when the militants kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls from the village of Chibok, triggering a search for them that has been fruitless thus far. Minimah said there was no news on the whereabouts of the Chibok girls for now, but that the military was optimistic they would be able to get more information on it soon.