Hundreds feared dead over religious unrest in Nigeria

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A new round of sectarian bloodletting erupted in Nigeria when thousands of Muslim youths rioted in Kano after more than 160 people were believed killed during three days of Christian-Muslim unrest in the central city of Jos.

Although Nigerian officials put the death toll at 51 from the riots that broke out in Jos during Friday's prayers, there were fears the number of dead could run into the hundreds. A Red Cross official said 165 bodies had been taken to mortuaries in Jos, a largely Christian city that has resisted plans adopted in northern Nigeria to apply strict Islamic law.

Alarmingly, the clashes yesterday spread to the northern city of Kano, where about 5,000 Muslim youths set on fire a church and cars to avenge the deaths of their Muslim brethren.

Nigeria is no stranger to religious riots: Africa's most populous nation has been torn by sectarian unrest since February last year, when the mainly Muslim states in the north began observing the Islamic law, Sharia. The decision to implement Sharia in the northern state of Kaduna triggered clashes that left between 2,000 and 3,000 dead. Twelve states now observe the law.

Religious tension had risen in Jos after a Muslim was appointed chairman of a state poverty-reduction committee. According to one report, the violence broke out when a Christian woman tried to cross the street where Muslim men had gathered outside the mosque. Youths went on the rampage, burning down mosques after an unsubstantiated rumour that a church had been set alight.

Christian mobs were meanwhile reported to have gone from house to house in the Congo-Russia district, asking residents to recite Bible verses. Households thought to be those of Christians were left intact but hundreds of Muslim homes were looted and burnt.

Tension was still high in the city of four million people yesterday where armed soldiers patrolled the streets under a dusk-to-dawn curfew. Thousands of Jos residents have fled their homes, and are sheltering in schools and military bases.

Soldiers fired shots into the air outside the city's biggest mosque to repel crowds of young Muslim men who had gathered near the Massalachi Juma. Youths could be seen walking past soldiers, raising their hands in the air to show they were unarmed. Charred bodies and burnt-out cars were still strewn in the streets of Jos, where the site of the original conflict was nothing but a blackened ruin.

A Christian, Alphonsus Sharif Okafor, whose pharmacy was burnt down, said: "We Christians lived with Muslims for all our lives without any problem. I only pray we can do it again."

In Kano, a pastor said: "They [youths] just came in with their weapons and petrol in cans and asked everybody out before setting the church ablaze. Nobody could stop them, they were heavily armed," James Alalade, the pastor, said.

The two-year-old government of President Olusegun Obasanjo has been plagued by outbreaks of inter-ethnic violence, as years of social resentment that had simmered previously under military rule burst into the open and threatened the country's stability.

He condemned the violence yesterday. "I wonder what sort of Muslims and Christians start burning churches and mosques – places where God is worshipped?" he said. "True believers in God cannot start killing other human beings," he added.

A former Nigerian military ruler, Yakubu Gowon – a Christian northerner himself – was engaged in talks with various groups involved in an effort to stop the violence.