Lagos, Nigeria (CNN)Several people including a police officer were killed in clashes between Shiite protesters and the police in Nigeria's capital Abuja on Monday, police and a Shiite cleric told CNN.
Protests turn deadly as the Islamic Movement of Nigeria clash with police
Police fired tear gas and opened fire on members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) as they marched in the city, the group's spokesman Abubakar Abdulrahman said.
"The police threw two canisters at us and immediately followed it by shooting at our members. We have recovered six bodies, and many of our members are injured," Abdulrahman told CNN. CNN has not independently confirmed those deaths.
A deputy commissioner of police was shot dead by heavily armed protesters, according to the Nigeria police, and 54 people were arrested in connection to the incident. A police spokesman did not respond to questions about the force's alleged use of live ammunition.
One journalist hit by a stray bullet while covering the protest also died at the hospital, confirmed his employer, local TV station Channels Television, on Monday evening.
The violence began when IMN members took to the streets on Monday to demand the release of their leader Ibrahim Zakzaky from detention. The group has organized several protests in the Nigerian capital since his arrest in 2015.
Police said the protesters set a unit of the National Emergency Management Agency building on fire, and that two vehicles were destroyed in the demonstrations.
But Abdulrahman said the protesters were not armed and that the fire started after gas canisters launched by the policemen hit the emergency unit.
"This just distraction from the real issue at stake. We have been protesting for the past three years and seven months. it is the security operatives that usually turns it to be violent by using live ammunition and tear gas canisters," Abdulrahman told CNN.
The US Embassy in Nigeria on Monday issued an alert warning employees to stay back in the office or remain at their homes until further notice. It also warned its citizens to avoid major roads in the city.
Zakzaky was arrested in 2015, following a crackdown by security forces which left hundreds of IMN members dead. Nigeria military had accused his followers of attempting to assassinate a military chief in Zaria city in Kaduna State, an allegation the group denied.
The Shiite leader is still being held in Kaduna where he faces state charges, including culpable homicide and unlawful assembly.
The sect's demonstrations have turned deadly before. In November 2018, clashes with the Nigerian army in Abuja left at least 45 dead and 122 wounded, according to Amnesty International.
On July 19, Nigeria's presidency in a statement warned members of the sect to stop violent demonstrations in the capital and wait for a court's decision on Zakzaky's fate.
"The issue of El-ZakZaky is before the court in Kaduna and his supporters should focus on his on-going trial instead of causing daily damages, disruptions and public nuisance in Abuja," the Presidency said in the statement.
There are an estimated three million Shiite Muslims in Nigeria, and a majority of them reside in states in the north.