Kano, Nigeria, Nov 14, 2016 (AFP) -At least 10 people were killed and several injured Monday when Nigerian police opened fire during clashes with pro-Iranian Shiites outside northern Kano, the latest round of violence involving the group, witnesses and police said.
Violence broke out when police tried to disperse thousands of members of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) marching from Kano in Kano state, to Zaria in Kaduna state -- where they have been banned -- for the Ashura religious festival.
There have been several incidents of sectarian violence involving the IMN in the past year in Nigeria, with Sunni Muslim mobs attacking Shiite ceremonies just in recent weeks.
"The police arrived and started firing teargas canisters on the procession of Shiites to disperse them," grocer Ilyasu Ammani told AFP.
"I saw 15 bodies sprawled on the ground before the police evacuated them," he added of the violence in Kwanar Dawaki on the outskirts of Kano.
Witness Kabiru Mudassir said he saw more than "10 bodies being taken away in a police van."
Nigerian police said they opened fire on the IMN crowd, who were armed with bows and arrows, after one of their officers was hurt.
"They injured one of our officers and our men opened fire because they were becoming violent," said a police officer who asked to remain anonymous.
"Thousands of Shiite members obstructed motorists on the highway, they disturbed innocent motorists," Kano state police commissioner Rabiu Yusuf said at a press conference.
"Shiite members armed with bows and arrows and some dangerous weapons killed one policeman and injured three others," Yusuf said. "Eight Shiite members were seriously injured. They were taken to hospital and were confirmed dead."
The violence comes just over a month since 10 IMN members -- who were also in the streets for religious celebrations -- were killed in the town of Funtua in northern Katsina state following clashes with security forces.
In October, Kano police banned IMN from conducting street processions ahead of the annual Ashura rites.
In the days before, prominent Kaduna state governor Nasir El-Rufai had banned the group as an "unlawful society", saying it was a security threat and calling for security forces to "vigorously" arrest its members.- 'Intentional heavy-handedness' -
The IMN seeks to establish an Islamic state through an Iranian-style revolution and has been in conflict with the Nigerian government over the years.
In December 2015 the group fought against soldiers for two days in the city of Zaria.
The fighting left over 300 IMN members dead while leader Ibrahim Zakzaky was left partially paralysed and blind in one eye.
Amnesty International later accused Nigeria's military of acting "unlawfully" by shooting "indiscriminately" at unarmed protestors.
Experts warn that Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari's response to the issue is stoking tension at a time when security forces are overstretched fighting Boko Haram jihadists in the northeast and Niger delta militants in the south.
"I see a pattern of intentional heavy-handedness in dealing with this group," Jos-based political analyst Chris Ngwodo told AFP.
"You have a situation where the Nigerian state only has hammers in its toolkit, and sees people as nails to be hammered in or out of existence," Ngwodo said, adding that he fears history will repeat itself.
Jihadist group Boko Haram took up arms against the Nigerian government following a 2009 crackdown on the group that killed leader Mohammed Yusuf.
Complicating the picture is growing concern that northern Nigeria is becoming the latest battleground in the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, after violent clashes in the region in the past six months between supporters of rival groups from the two main branches of Islam.
"Is this part of escalating Saudi influence on Nigerian policy? Is this part of efforts to remit or degrade Nigerian Shiites as a proxy for Iran?" Ngwodo said.
"They've taken brutal measures to stop a group that's essentially exercising its right to practise its religion," Ngwodo said. "Historically, this approach has failed."