JOS, Nigeria (Reuters) - Mosque and government officials have pulled more bodies from wells and sewage pits in a village near the Nigerian city of Jos, victims of what Human Rights Watch said appeared to have been a targeted massacre.
Four days of clashes between Christian and Muslim mobs armed with guns, knives and machetes killed hundreds of people in Jos and surrounding communities this week before Vice President Goodluck Jonathan deployed the military to contain the violence.
Muhammad Tanko Shittu, a senior mosque official organizing mass burials in Jos, told Reuters on Saturday he had just returned from Kuru Jantar, a village also known as Kuru Karama or Kuru Gada Biu, where more than 200 bodies had been found.
“So many bodies were dumped into wells and were littered around, others were being evacuated by the federal authorities,” he said. Both Shittu and Red Cross officials said they were still counting bodies and could not yet give an overall toll.
Some estimates have put the death toll at more than 400, although official figures have been much lower.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said groups of armed men attacked the mostly Muslim population of Kuru Karama on January 19, burning some alive and killing others as they tried to flee. It urged Jonathan to order an investigation of “credible reports of a massacre of at least 150 Muslim residents.”
“They were armed with cutlasses, guns, sticks and bags of stone. It was not the Christians from our community but those from outside who came,” one 32-year-old resident of Kuru Karama, who was not named, told Human Rights Watch.
“The children were running helter-skelter. The men were trying to protect the women. People who ran into the bush were killed. Some were burned in the mosque and some went to the houses and were burned,” he said.
He said he had seen the bodies of 20-30 children, some burned, some sliced with machetes, and that his wife was in hospital with an 11-month-old girl who had been cut with an axe.
“I came back on Wednesday evening escorted by the military. I saw dead bodies everywhere. The corpses were there, but now you can just see the blood on the ground. None of the houses are standing,” he said.
The unrest around the capital of Plateau state, which lies at the crossroads of Nigeria’s Muslim north and predominantly Christian south, underscores the fragility of Africa’s most populous nation as it approaches the campaign period for 2011 elections with uncertainty over who is in charge.
President Umaru Yar‘Adua has been receiving medical treatment in Saudi Arabia for two months and has not formally handed executive powers to Jonathan, triggering court challenges over the legality of government decisions.
Jonathan on Thursday ordered the army to take over security in Jos to prevent further clashes and pledged those responsible for the violence would face justice.
A Nigerian court has ruled Jonathan can perform executive duties but said he could not be “acting president,” leading some members of the opposition and analysts to question whether he can legally act as commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
The authorities relaxed a 24-hour curfew in Jos on Thursday to allow thousands of residents to return to their homes. The strong presence of troops and police has helped restore calm.
The Red Cross has estimated 17,000 people were displaced and took shelter in colleges, hospitals and schools. A Red Cross official in neighboring Bauchi state said on Saturday around 7,000 people were still sheltering in schools there and were being given food and medical supplies.
Writing and additional reporting by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Janet Lawrence