DAKAR, Senegal — A high-ranking police officer, a journalist and protesters are among the dead after a rally to free a minority religious leader from detention turned violent this week in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, marking another dark chapter in a series of murky confrontations.
The death toll remained uncertain Tuesday following the latest clashes between state security forces and supporters of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), a Shiite Muslim group that wants the government to release Ibrahim el-Zakzaky.
Authorities said 3,000 of his followers gathered in the capital Monday with weapons. Demonstrators said they came to advocate for their leader, who has been a voice for religious dissent since the 1980s and was arrested in 2015 on a murder charge that his supporters view as fabricated.
Each side accused the other of sparking violence.
“The heavily armed protesters defying all sense of decency violently attacked innocent citizens and Police personnel on duty,” police spokesman Frank Mba said in a statement.
Mohammed Ibrahim Gamawa, a Shiite protester, denied that, saying police opened fire on demonstrators without provocation.
“We deposited 15 corpses at the mortuary,” he said in an interview.
The bloodshed raises questions about the government’s use of force at a time when religious protests in the country are expected to intensify. Demonstrators say they won’t stop taking to the streets — no matter the consequences — until Zakzaky is free.
Deputy Police Commissioner Usman Umar was fatally shot, and two other officers were injured, Mba said.
Television reporter Precious Owolabi also died in the gunfire, his channel confirmed late Monday, setting off an outpouring of grief on social media. One local anchor who reported the story cried on the air.
It is unclear how many protesters died in the demonstration.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari expressed condolences Tuesday on Twitter to the families of Umar and Owolabi. He called the IMN’s protest “violent.”
“I want to reassure residents of Abuja in particular and the country in general to go about their lawful activities without fear,” he wrote. “The leadership of our security and law enforcement agencies are taking action to safeguard the nation against such mindless attacks.”
Nigeria is practically half Christian and half Muslim. Most of the country’s Muslims, who largely live in the north, are Sunni, including Buhari.
Some in the Shiite minority oppose the secular government altogether, and the IMN is the movement behind that sentiment. It claims to have 2 million members, but analysts say that figure is unverified.
Unlike Boko Haram — the extremist group concentrated in Nigeria’s northeast that is trying to build an Islamist state through violence — IMN supporters say they have tried to pursue peaceful dissent. They say they do not want to hurt civilians or soldiers.
IMN supporters have lately focused their distress on the detention of Zakzaky, who was arrested in 2015 after the government said he led a mob that attempted to kill an army official while blocking a military convoy in northern Nigeria’s Kaduna state. (The murder charge against Zakzaky is related to the death of another soldier in the chaos.)
Nearly 350 IMN members were killed in a crackdown in the days that followed, according to Amnesty International.
Human Rights groups say Zakzaky, who is being held with his wife, deserves a speedier trial.
Garba Shehu, a spokesman for Buhari, said Kaduna state must decide Zakzaky’s fate in court. The government will enforce what the regional power decides — “whatever its outcome,” he said.
“Our constitution does not give power to the president to stop investigations or ongoing trials by the courts,” Shehu added. “He, however, has the power of pardon upon conviction.”
Regular Shiite protests followed Zakzaky’s arrest, and tensions between the IMN and the government have been building for years. It’s hard to know exactly what happens when the two forces tangle, said John Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria.
“Statements by the security services are often inaccurate, sometimes intentionally so,” Campbell said. “Sometimes because they themselves do not know the real story.”
“We make statements on the basis of fact,” Mba, the police spokesman, said in a text message. “We only speak on matters that are empirically verifiable.”
In November, the IMN said 42 of its members were killed by military forces in Abuja clashes. The Nigerian army seemed to defend its response on Twitter that week with a quote from President Trump.
“Please Watch and Make your Deductions,” read the tweet, which featured a video clip of Trump saying: “Anybody throwing stones, rocks . . . we will consider that a firearm because there is not much difference.”
“They want to throw rocks at our military, our military fights back,” Trump said in his Nov. 1 comments.
The Nigerian army later deleted the tweet.
Gamawa, the Shiite protester at Monday’s demonstration, said he expects relations between the IMN and the government to worsen.
Some of the members, he said, believe that their leader has been poisoned in confinement. On Tuesday, he added, they were already back in the streets.
“We don’t fear bullets,” he said.
Isaac Abrak in Abuja, Nigeria, contributed to this report.