JOS, Nigeria (Reuters) - More than 200 people have been killed in two days of clashes between Christians and Muslims in central Nigeria, the Red Cross said on Saturday, the worst unrest in the country for years.
The army sent reinforcements to enforce a 24-hour curfew on the city of Jos, which lies at the crossroads of Nigeria’s Muslim north and Christian south, after rival gangs burned churches and mosques.
“I counted 218 dead bodies at Masalaci Jummaa (mosque). There are many other bodies in the streets,” said a Red Cross official who asked not to be named.
That death toll did not include hospital figures, victims already buried, or those taken to other places of worship, meaning the final count could be much higher, officials said.
About 7,000 people fled their homes and were sheltering in government buildings and religious centers, the Red Cross said.
The governor of Plateau state, of which Jos is the capital, said in a statement that troops had orders to shoot on sight to enforce the curfew in neighborhoods hit by the violence.
Gunfire and explosions heard in the early hours of Saturday later died down but many streets were deserted. Military checkpoints were set up around the city and soldiers helped clear bodies from the streets.
“The situation demanded that we send in additional troops from neighboring states,” Nigerian army spokesman Brigadier General Emeka Onwuamaegbu told Reuters.
The unrest is the most serious of its kind in the country of 140 million people, split roughly equally between Christians and Muslims, since President Umaru Yar’Adua took power in May 2007.
The clashes between gangs of Muslim Hausas and mostly Christian Beroms began early on Friday and were provoked by a disputed local government chairmanship election.
“There are Hausas and Beroms who want to fight each other and the army is in the middle trying to create a buffer zone,” one resident said on Saturday.
A spokesman for Plateau state governor Jonah Jang said hundreds of youths found to be carrying weapons had been arrested at military roadblocks.
Christians and Muslims generally live peacefully side by side in Nigeria, Afica’s most populous country, but hostility has simmered before in Plateau.
Hundreds were killed in ethnic-religious fighting in Jos in 2001. Three years later, hundreds died in clashes in Yelwa, leading then-President Olusegun Obasanjo to declare a state of emergency.
The tensions in Plateau have their roots in decades of resentment by indigenous minority groups, mostly Christian or animist, toward migrants and settlers from Nigeria’s Hausa-speaking Muslim north.
(For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: africa.reuters.com/)
Additional reporting by Tume Ahemba; Writing by Nick Tattersall