464 killed in Nigeria, troops seek to end violence

Wednesday January 20 2010

Vehicles burn on the street in Jos January 17, 2010. Photo/Reuters

Vehicles burn on the street in Jos January 17, 2010. Photo/Reuters 

By By KINGSLEY IGWE and SHUAIBU MOHAMMED

JOS, Nigeria, Wednesday

Clashes between Muslim and Christian gangs subsided today in the Nigerian city of Jos and nearby communities, where rights activists said the death toll has topped 464.

Hundreds of soldiers and police were stationed throughout Plateau state’s capital city in central Nigeria to enforce a 24-hour curfew, which has left many streets deserted and businesses closed.

US-based Human Rights Watch said 151 bodies had been taken to the city’s mosque for burial since the violence started on Sunday, while the number of Christian dead was put at 65.

“The fighting has stopped in Jos, but we can hear gunshots in other communities in the outskirts of the city. We are expecting more corpses to be brought in from surrounding communities later today,” said Muhammad Tanko Shittu, a senior mosque official organising mass burials, who estimated the death toll among Muslims at 177.

The official police figures were significantly lower with 35 people dead, 40 injured and 168 arrested since Sunday.

Vice President Goodluck Jonathan, in his first use of executive power, ordered troops to Jos on Tuesday to restore calm and prevent a repetition of clashes in November 2008, when hundreds of residents were killed in the country’s worst sectarian fighting in years.

It was not clear whether President Umaru Yar’Adua, who has been in hospital in Saudi Arabia for nearly two months, had been briefed on the situation.

“More troops have come in and the situation is now under control. But there are still many hoodlums dressed in fake police and military outfits causing havoc,” said Gregory Yenlong, spokesman for the Plateau state government.

This week’s violence erupted after an argument between Muslim and Christian neighbours over the rebuilding of homes destroyed in the 2008 clashes.

The fighting is unlikely to have a big impact on sub-Saharan Africa’s second biggest economy. Its oil industry is in the south and its banking sector mainly in the commercial capital Lagos.

A Reuters correspondent saw three burnt bodies lying on the streets in Jos and several buildings, churches and cars destroyed by fire.

Armoured vehicles and soldiers patrolled the city, while residents ventured outside with their arms held up to signal they were unarmed.

The break in violence allowed mosque officials to retrieve dead bodies in the outskirts of the city, with 22 found in one nearby community, Shittu said.

The city’s main hospital, Jos University Teaching Hospital, was forced to turn away some patients late Tuesday because doctors were too overwhelmed.

“Ninety percent of the casualties were from gunshot injuries with a few from knives and bows and arrows,” said Dr. Dabit Joseph, who works at Jos University Teaching Hospital.

The Red Cross has 40 staff workers and several volunteers at seven centres in Jos to help thousands of displaced residents, an agency spokesman said.

Nigeria has roughly equal numbers of Christians and Muslims, although traditional animist beliefs underpin many people’s faiths.

More than 200 ethnic groups generally live peacefully side-by-side in the West African country, although 1 million people were killed in a civil war between 1967 and 1970 and there have been outbreaks of religious unrest since then.

Jos has been the centre of several major religious clashes in Africa’s most populous nation.

The November 2008 clashes killed around 700 people, according to U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, while more than 1,000 Jos residents died in similar fighting in September 2001.