Clashes between Nigeria's Muslim and Christian communities have left nearly 150 people dead and thousands displaced after five days of violence sparked originally by the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohamed.
In the southern city of Onitsha, where the worst of the killing took place, Christians yesterday burnt the corpses of their victims and defaced mosques in revenge for attacks on Christians in the north of the country earlier this week.
As several bodies burnt on pyres of flaming tyres and the stench of charred flesh filled the air, police began to clear away the dead lying at the sides of Onitsha's dirt roads.
"Security forces were collecting dead bodies of those killed in the two days of mayhem," said Emeka Umeh, head of the Civil Liberties Organisation in the city.
Last Saturday, violence broke out in Maiduguri, northern Nigeria, leaving at least 15 Christians dead and 11 churches in flames. The riots were led by Muslims furious at the cartoons, published in Danish and other European newspapers. More than 100 people were arrested and the army was called in to help the police. In revenge, on Tuesday morning, riots broke out against the Muslim population in the Christian city of Onitsha.
"The rioters were armed with machetes, daggers, clubs, knives and other metal objects," Mr Umeh added.
With their mosques and businesses burnt, more than 3,000 Muslim men, women and children have overwhelmed the local barracks, police stations and mosques seeking protection. The Red Cross reports more than 100 people dead in Onitsha "so far", and says it has treated about 70 injured. "They were attacked by mobs ... some have bruises, some have dislocations," said Anne Asiegbu, the organisation's area officer.
The Anambra state governor, Chris Ngige, has deployed 2,000 policemen on the streets and appealed for calm.
Nigerian analysts believe much of the violence is fuelled by political tensions concerning national elections in 2007. "This type of protest has a political undertone," said Mr Umeh.
The country is rife with rumour that President Olusegun Obasanjo may try to change the constitution and seek a third term, while others seek to use violence to further their political influence and position in the forthcoming elections. "Speculation that President Obasanjo will try to change the constitution so he can seek a third term is raising political tension and if proven true, threatens to unleash major turmoil and conflict," John Negroponte, the US intelligence chief, said this month.
"Such chaos in Nigeria could lead to disruption of oil supply, secessionist moves by regional governments and instability elsewhere in Africa," he added.
Nigeria's population of 120 million is split roughly in half - the northern Hausa are predominantly Muslim, and the southern Yoruba and Ibgo ethnic groups are mostly Christian. In 1999, Sharia law was introduced in many of the northern states, aggravating tensions between Muslims and Christians.
In September 2001, 915 people died in Jos after news of al-Qa'ida's attacks on America. More than 200 people were killed in 2002, following outrage when Nigeria tried to host the Miss World beauty contest.
Some in Onitsha have set deadlines for the Hausa community to leave. The city's deputy police commissioner, Haz Iwendi, said: "The various state governors are meeting to ensure that this does not snowball."Reuse content