MAIDUGURI (Reuters) - At least 40 people were killed and many others wounded in an attack by gunmen on Zurak village in Nigeria's north-central Plateau state, where clashes between herders and farmers are rife, the police and residents said on Tuesday.

Plateau police spokesperson Alfred Alabo said armed men, often referred to locally as bandits, fleeing an "aggressive onslaught" by security agents in Bangalala forest of Wase local government area of the state attacked Zurak and Dakai villages late on Monday.

While seven of the assailants were neutralised by security agents, fleeing gang members killed nine people and burnt down six houses, Alabo said in a statement.

Residents say the death toll is much higher. They told Reuters that dozens of gunmen had stormed the village on motorcycles, shooting indiscriminately, abducting an unspecified number of people, and setting houses ablaze.

"As they entered our village, they began shooting sporadically at anyone they saw. They killed more than 40 people without any mercy. I managed to escape to a nearby village. Until now, I haven't seen many of my family members," said Babangida Aliyu, a resident of Zurak who fled.

Another resident, Timothy Haruna, told Reuters: "They killed many people and abducted a lot. Many others sustained gunshot injuries. They also set our houses ablaze."

Attacks in rural areas and kidnapping for ransom have become commonplace in northern Nigeria in recent years where armed gangs have targeted villages, schools and travellers, demanding millions of naira in ransom.

Nigeria is plagued with security challenges, including a 14-year-long Islamist insurgency in its northeast, separatist violence in the southeast, and frequent deadly clashes between farmers and herders in the central region.

Alabo said the Plateau police command has deployed more officers to the area to secure the villages.

(Writing by Elisha Bala-Gbogbo; Editing by Leslie Adler)

By Ahmed Kingimi