JOS, Nigeria (Reuters) - Clashes between Muslim and Christian gangs triggered by a disputed election have killed more than 200 people in central Nigeria, the Red Cross said on Saturday, in the worst unrest in the country for years.
The army sent reinforcements to police a 24-hour curfew on the city of Jos, which lies at the crossroads of Nigeria’s Muslim north and Christian south, after rival groups of youths burned homes, shops, mosques and churches.
Hundreds of bodies were brought to the town’s main mosque in preparation for a mass burial.
“I counted 218 dead bodies at Masalaci Jummaa. 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.
Muslims and Christians generally live peacefully side by side in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation.
But ethnic and religious tensions in the country’s “middle belt” have simmered for years, rooted in resentment by indigenous minority groups, mostly Christian or animist, toward migrants and settlers from the Hausa-speaking Muslim north.
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.
About 7,000 people fled their homes and were sheltering in government buildings and religious centers, the Red Cross said.
The unrest is the most serious of its kind recently in the country of 140 million people, split roughly equally between Christians and Muslims, since President Umaru Yar’Adua took power in May 2007.
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 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.
Hundreds were killed in fighting in Jos in 2001. Hundreds more died in 2004 in clashes in Yelwa, also in Plateau, leading then-President Olusegun Obasanjo to declare an emergency.
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Additional reporting by Tume Ahemba; Writing by Nick Tattersall; editing by Michael Roddy