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Troops patrol after clashes kill hundreds

Sporadic bursts of gunfire rattled the central Nigerian city of Jos today as security forces tried to prevent more clashes between Muslim and Christian gangs in which hundreds of people have been killed.

world Updated: Nov 30, 2008 17:24 IST

Sporadic bursts of gunfire rattled the central Nigerian city of Jos on Sunday as security forces tried to prevent more clashes between Muslim and Christian gangs in which hundreds of people have been killed.

Rival ethnic and religious mobs have burned homes, shops, mosques and churches in fighting triggered by a disputed local election in a city at the crossroads of Nigeria's Muslim north and Christian south. It is the country's worst unrest for years.

Hundreds of people gathered outside the main mosque where members of the Muslim community have been bringing their dead.

A Red Cross worker said on Saturday he had counted 218 bodies awaiting burial in the building. The overall death toll was expected to be much higher with some victims already buried and others taken to hospitals and places of worship.

"They are still picking up dead bodies outside. Some areas were not reachable until now," said Al Mansur, a 53-year old farmer who said all the homes around his had been razed.

Soldiers patrolled on foot and in jeeps to enforce a 24-hour curfew imposed on the worst-hit areas. Those who ventured out walked with their hands in the air to show they were unarmed.

Overturned and burnt-out vehicles littered the streets while several churches, a block of houses and an Islamic school in one neighbourhood were gutted by fire.

The Red Cross said around 7,000 people had fled their homes and were sheltering in government buildings, an army barracks and religious centres. A senior police official said five neighbourhoods had been hit by unrest and 523 people detained.

"It's religious. They were burning mosques and churches. They used politics as a cover-up," said Suleyman Yusuf, a Muslim from the Yoruba ethnic group, two of whose friends were killed.

Yusuf was sheltering with some 4,000 men, women and children -- Christian and Muslim, and from a variety of ethnic groups -- in a national drug agency building set up by aid workers.

Simmering Tensions

Nigeria's 140 million people are roughly equally split between Muslims and Christians and the two communities generally live peacefully side by side.

But ethnic and religious tensions in the country's central "Middle Belt" have bubbled for years, rooted in resentment from indigenous minority groups, mostly Christian or animist, towards migrants and settlers from the Hausa-speaking Muslim north.

The latest clashes between gangs of Muslim Hausas and mostly Christian Beroms began early on Friday and were provoked by a disputed local election after rumours spread that the Hausa's ANPP party candidate had lost the race to the ruling PDP party.

Hundreds were killed in ethnic-religious fighting in Jos, the capital of Plateau state, in 2001. Hundreds more died in 2004 in clashes in Yelwa, also in Plateau, leading then-President Olusegun Obasanjo to declare an emergency.

Unrest in the state has in the past triggered reprisal attacks between different ethnic and religious groups in other areas of the country.

But the security forces appear to have reacted more quickly than in the past to contain the violence in Jos, with the army sending in reinforcements from neighbouring states.