By Nnekule Ikemfuna
KANO, Nigeria (Reuters) - Police said nine people were killed in clashes between Shi'ite Muslims and police during a religious procession in northern Nigeria on Monday, but the minority sect said dozens of its members lost their lives.
The clashes occurred on the outskirts of Kano, a city in a state of the same name, as members of the country's largest Shi'ite group, the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), conducted an annual procession to Zaria in neighbouring Kaduna state.
It was the latest in a series of incidents involving the sect. A judicial inquiry in August reported that 347 IMN members were killed and buried in mass graves after clashes with the army in December 2015, and two sect members were killed in processions in Kaduna state last month.
Kano state Police Commissioner Rabiu Yusuf told reporters that nine people died in Monday's violence - eight IMN members and a policeman. He said several people were injured, including four police officers.
"At first we used tear gas on them. They attacked one of our personnel, who sustained a fatal injury," he said. Yusuf said IMN members used the dead policeman's weapon to fire at officers and they had "no option" but to use live ammunition in response.
Ibrahim Musa, a spokesman for the IMN - whose 1980s founders were inspired by the Islamic Revolution in Shi'ite Iran - said policemen opened fire on a peaceful crowd and killed "close to" 100 people including women and children.
"We view the unwarranted killings by the police as a continuation of the army pogrom started in Zaria last year," he said. The exact death toll was unclear, he added, because most of the bodies were "ferried away by the police, possibly for mass burial".
Last month the Kaduna state government declared IMN as an "unlawful society" on the grounds that its processions were a danger to peace, and said anyone convicted of being a member of the sect could be imprisoned for up to seven years.
Human Rights Watch estimates that IMN has around 3 million members. The sect's leader, Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky, has been held without charge since December following the clashes with the army in Zaria.
Security analysts have drawn some parallels between the IMN and Boko Haram, the Sunni Muslim jihadist group whose insurgency began in 2009 after security forces killed hundreds of its members and its leader Mohammed Yusuf died in custody.
Nigeria, which has 180 million people and is Africa's most populous nation, combines a predominantly Christian south and mainly Sunni Muslim north. Around 250 ethnic groups have co-existed mostly peacefully in the country.
(Additional reporting by Garba Muhammad in Kaduna; writing by Alexis Akwagyiram; editing by Mark Heinrich)