Religious riots spread despite Nigerian troops

Almost 500 believed dead after clashes between Muslims and Christians
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The Independent Online

Sectarian violence spread to two more cities in central Nigeria last night, after troops brought calm to Jos by forcing residents to stay indoors.

As street clashes broke out in Pankshin and Mangu, one report said 464 people had died in Jos, where the fighting between Christians and Muslims began on Sunday. "The figure sounds credible," said local reporter Bashir Ibrahim Idris, "but it is impossible to verify due to the 24-hour curfew".

The trouble apparently began when Kadir Mohammed, a Muslim technician with the Energy Commission, decided to return to his house in Nasarawa, which is now a densely-populated Christian area, and was prevented from entering. The ensuing stand-off saw Christians stone Muslim youths who burnt a Catholic church. Reports vary of who started the violence.

After the Nigerian government deployed troops and imposed the indefinite curfew on Monday, eyewitnesses described smouldering buildings, including a mosque, bodies abandoned under the sun and streets deserted but for military convoys.

Mr Idris toured Jos with a visiting government delegation yesterday. "We saw widespread destruction in many places, including Nasarawa, a Christian area, where the trouble began on Sunday. People were taken completely by surprise by the violence. Many have lost their homes," he said. "The problem now is that people in Jos are very hungry. The government has sent troops but residents fear they will be shot if they go outside to fetch water and food. There does not seem to be a plan to distribute aid."

Despite calls for calm from Christian and Muslim leaders, mobs in Pankshin and Mangu, both in a 60-mile radius of Jos, burnt public buildings and places of worship yesterday.

Jos is located in Plateau State, between the Muslim-dominated north and the Christian south. In November 2008, at least 200 people were killed in two days of violence in the city.

In recent years, desertification has forced more and more people – mainly northerners, who are Muslim – into urban centres, such as Jos, where they compete for scarce resources and jobs. Amid government inaction, religious chiefs – including leaders of sects – have gained increasing influence.

On Tuesday, the minister of police affairs, Ibrahim Yakubu Lame, blamed the violence on "some highly-placed individuals who were exploiting the ignorance and poverty of the people to cause mayhem in the name of religion".

But some residents and rights groups blamed the current violence on the fact that none of the perpetrators of last year's attacks had been brought to justice. Shamaki Gad, of the Jos-based League for Human Rights, said people had little faith in the security forces' ability to restore order.

International human rights organisation, Human Rights Watch, also blamed impunity. "The government has shockingly failed to hold anyone accountable," said the group's West Africa researcher, Corinne Dufka. "Nigeria's leaders need to tackle the vicious cycle of violence bred by this impunity."

Most people in Jos dismissed suggestions that the violence was linked to Nigeria's leadership crisis. In November, President Umaru Yar'Adua was admitted to hospital in Saudi Arabia, without giving clear instructions for his deputy, Goodluck Jonathan, to take over in his absence.