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* Red Cross says 17,000 people displaced
* Need for food, water and clothing
By Kingsley Igwe
JOS, Nigeria, Jan 21 (Reuters) - Nigerian authorities relaxed a 24-hour curfew in the central city of Jos on Thursday to allow thousands of residents to return to their homes following religious clashes that killed hundreds. The strong presence of troops and police has helped restore calm in the capital of Plateau state with no reports of major violence for nearly a day.
Four days of clashes between Muslim and Christian gangs this week killed more than 460, wounded nearly 1,000, and forced thousands to flee their homes.
Plateau State Governor Jonah Jang relaxed a 24-hour curfew in Jos to operate between 5 p.m. (1600 GMT) and 10 a.m. to allow Nigerians to return to their homes.
"It has been relaxed because there is some difficulty with displaced people wanting to go back to their homes and access basic needs of life," said state government spokesman Gregory Yenlong.
The Red Cross estimated about 17,000 people have been displaced and taking shelter in colleges, hospitals and schools since clashes began on Sunday.
"There are so many people that need clothing, food and water. The Red Cross is focusing on those injured and referring some to hospital," an agency spokesman said, adding that about 990 have been hospitalised.
Any 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.
The relative calm will also allow mosque officials to travel to nearby communities and bury the dead.
Mosque officials have estimated the number of dead Muslims since Sunday at about 400. U.S.-based Human Rights Watch on Wednesday said at least 65 Christians had died.
Official government figures were significantly lower at 75 dead, more than 200 injured and 200 arrested.
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.
This week's violence erupted after an argument between Muslim and Christian neighbours over the rebuilding of homes destroyed in the 2008 clashes, residents 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 about 700 people, according to U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, while more than 1,000 Jos residents died in similar fighting in September 2001. (Writing by Randy Fabi; Editing by Matthew Jones) (For more Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: af.reuters.com/ ) (For Interactive factbox on Nigeria please click here)