Fri, Feb 24, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Muslim dead burnt after Nigerian riots

MASSACREAfter three days of sectarian violence, people in the Muslim south started piling the bodies on bofires, while Christians holded up in army barracks

AFP , ONITSHA, NIGERIA

Dead bodies are loaded onto a van following violent riots in Onitsha, southeastern Nigeria, on Wednesday. Unrest sparked by the publishing of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed has prevailed in the west African nation for five days.

PHOTO: EPA

People of Onitsha piled the southern Nigerian city's Muslim dead on bonfires yesterday after three days of sectarian massacres, while Christians in the north turned to the army for refuge.

On a short drive around Onitsha's town center, reporters saw blazing piles of tyres and at least nine more corpses to add to the 19 they had found a day earlier scattered by the roadside.

The city's central mosque was a burnt-out ruin, its inner walls daubed with religious and political slogans: "No Mohammed, Jesus is Lord," and "Is from today no more Nigeria."

Most of Onitsha's Christian ethnic Igbo citizens had returned to work in the city's bustling and traffic-choked markets, walking by the smouldering bodies without a second glance.

Far to the north in Katsina, some 7,000 people from the Igbo tribe were holed up in military barracks and police stations for fear their Hausa mainly Muslim neighbors would slaughter them to avenge the deaths in the south.

"We are afraid we could be attacked by Muslim youths in the city who are angry with the riots in Onitsha," Chinedu Okafor, a 34-year-old motor spare parts dealer, told a reporter in an army barracks.

"We feel unsafe living in the town because our homes and businesses could be targets of reprisal attacks," he said, adding: "Most Igbos living in the city have moved here, while the few that remain in the city are putting up with some good Muslim friends."

They also feared possible riots over ongoing public hearings in Katsina and five other cities across Nigeria on a possible constitutional amendment seeking to allow President Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christian southerner, a third term.

Police were deployed across Katsina's neighboring towns, including Kano, Kaduna and Zaria, all notorious for sectarian violence.

"We are on red alert. All state commissioners of police are under instructions to monitor developments and prevent any violence," federal police spokesman Haz Iwendi said.

The Onitsha riots on Tuesday and Wednesday were in response to a massacre of 15 Christians in the north following protests over cartoons of Islam's Prophet Mohammed published in European newspapers.

The drawings have sparked furious protests from Muslims in many countries, but the clashes fuelled in Nigeria were the bloodiest yet. The nation's 130 million people are divided roughly equally between Muslims and Christians of a variety of sects and denominations.

While northern Nigeria is overwhelmingly Muslim and the south largely Christian, there are large minority populations in both and sectarian rioting is relatively common and extremely bloody.

In Onitsha most townsfolk refused to acknowledge the charred remains beside them, preferring to harangue reporters with their own woes.

The violence in Onitsha was sparked by rumors that two truckloads of Igbo corpses slain by Muslim rioters in the north had arrived in town. Christians targeted the sizeable Hausa community who came to the south from Niger and northern Nigeria to trade goats, cattle and beans in the vast market.

According to some of the thousands of Muslims who fled over the Niger River Bridge to neighboring Asaba to seek shelter in police stations and hospitals, a machete-wielding mob descended on the market and began to kill.

There will probably never be an accurate death toll. Witnesses said some bodies were thrown in the Niger River, while police refused to say how many had been cleared away.

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