KADUNA, Nigeria (Reuters) - Nigerian troops shot dead seven members of a Shiite Muslim sect Saturday when they tried to block the passage of a convoy carrying the army chief of staff in the northern city of Zaria, the sect's spokesman said, and clashes continued into Sunday.

Army Chief Lt. Col. Tukur Buratai was passing through Zaria, in the state of Kaduna, when members of the minority Muslim sect were conducting their annual Hussainiyyah Baqiyyatullah "Changing of Flags" ritual.

"We learnt that [Buratai] was visiting...newly graduated recruits and that coincided with our day of Changing of Flags, which we do annually. We had no intention of doing anything as claimed by the soldiers," sect leader Ibrahim Zakzaky said.

An army spokesman, Colonel Sani Usman, accused the Shiites of trying to assassinate Buratai and said that soldiers were forced to shoot in defense when sect members refused to move out of the convoy's way and became violent.

"The sect, numbering hundreds and carrying dangerous weapons, barricaded the roads with bonfires, heavy stones and tires. They refused all entreaties to disperse and then started firing and pelting the convoy with dangerous objects."

Most of Nigeria's tens of millions of Muslims are Sunni, including the Boko Haram jihadi militant group that has killed thousands of people in bombings and shootings mainly in the northeast of Africa's biggest energy producer since 2009.

But there are also several thousand Shiites, mostly followers of Zakzaky, who established Nigeria's Islamic movement inspired by Shiite Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Ibrahim Usman, a spokesman for the Shiite group, said Saturday that at least seven people were killed but that bodies were carted away by the military.

Reuters was not able to independently verify the claim, and the army declined to comment on casualties.

Residents in Zaria said that gunfire continued throughout the night into Sunday morning, and the Shiite group said that their top leaders were being targeted by the army.

Zakzaky's followers are generally viewed as peaceful, but a similar altercation between the sect and the army occurred last year during a procession. Zakzaky said that 30 followers and three of his children were killed.

At the end of November, a suicide bomber killed at least 21 members of the Shiite group during its annual procession from Nigeria's second city Kano to Zaria to pay homage to Zakzaky. There was no claim of responsibility for the attack.