JOS, Nigeria (AP) -- Nigeria's military is battling a dangerous tribal militia that could grow into a terrorist group in central Nigeria and denies accusations its troops have killed dozens of civilians, the Defense Ministry spokesman said Monday.
Maj. Gen. Chris Olukolade said 32 suspected militants were killed and soldiers sustained various injuries when a militia opened fire on troops during weekend raids by the Special Task Force in central Plateau state. Another 10 suspects were arrested, he said in a statement.
Traditional ruler Chief Jessie Miri told reporters Sunday that as many as 80 civilians were killed by soldiers. Residents said most victims were women and children.
Residents suggested the attacks were to avenge the killings and mutilations of six soldiers last week. The soldiers' eyes were gouged out, their tongues slit and they were beheaded, according to residents who spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared reprisals. Four soldiers still are missing, they said.
Olukolade said the reports were "totally false" and part of a "smear campaign" against Nigeria's military.
"It was a well-intended operation aimed at apprehending the ring leaders and foot soldiers of an incubating terrorist group," he said. "The operation, however, went awry when the audacious and dangerous group opened fire on troops."
He warned that "never again shall the Nigerian military allow any militant groups to rise again to constitute themselves into grave danger to innocent citizens of the country" -- an apparent reference to the fight to curb a nearly 6-year-old Islamic uprising in the northeast.