Toll rises to 300 in Nigeria violence

Religious centers, homes burn in sectarian fighting

By Ahmed Saka
Associated Press / November 30, 2008
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JOS, Nigeria - Mobs burned homes, churches, and mosques yesterday in a second day of riots, as the death toll rose to more than 300 in the worst sectarian violence in Africa's most populous nation in years.

Sheikh Khalid Abubakar, the imam at the city's main mosque, said more than 300 bodies were brought there yesterday and 183 could be seen near the building waiting to be interred.

Those in the Christian community who were killed would probably not be taken to the city mosque, so the total death toll could be much higher. The city morgue wasn't accessible yesterday.

Bala Kassim, police spokesman, said there many were dead, but could not cite a firm number.

Red Cross officials estimated that 7,000 people fled their homes because of the fighting and had taken shelter in government buildings and religious centers.

The hostilities mark the worst clashes in the restive West African nation since 2004, when as many as 700 people died in Plateau State during Christian-Muslim clashes.

Jos, the capital of Plateau State, has a long history of community violence that has made it difficult to organize voting. More than 1,000 people were killed during rioting in September 2001.

The city is in Nigeria's middle belt, where members of hundreds of ethnic groups commingle in a band of fertile and hotly-contested land that separates the Muslim north from the predominantly Christian south.

Authorities imposed an around-the-clock curfew in the hardest-hit areas of the city, where traditionally pastoralist Hausa Muslims live in tense, close quarters with Christians from other ethnic groups.

The fighting began as clashes between supporters of the region's two main political parties after the first local election in the town of Jos in more than a decade. But the violence expanded along ethnic and religious fault lines, with Hausas and members of Christian ethnic groups doing battle.

Angry mobs gathered Thursday in Jos after electoral workers failed to post results in ballot collation centers, prompting many onlookers to assume the vote was the latest in a long line of fraudulent Nigerian elections.

Riots flared Friday morning and at least 15 people were killed. Local ethnic and religious leaders made radio appeals for calm yesterday, and streets were mostly empty by early afternoon. Troops were given orders to shoot rioters on sight.

The violence is the worst since the May 2007 inauguration of President Umaru Yar'Adua, who came to power in a vote that observers dismissed as not credible.

Few Nigerian elections have been deemed fair since independence from Britain in 1960, and military takeovers have periodically interrupted civilian rule.

About 10,000 Nigerians have died in sectarian violence since civilian leaders took over from a former military junta in 1999. Political strife over local issues is common in Nigeria, where government offices control massive budgets stemming from the country's oil industry.

Violence has flared in the past in Jos, where Muslim herdsmen mix daily with Christian farmers, which can lead to friction over land rights and religion.

More than 200 foreign workers have been kidnapped in nearly three years of violence across the oil-rich southern part of Nigeria. The hostages are normally released unharmed after a ransom is paid.

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