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Nigeria's Muslim-Christian clashes kill hundreds

Described as the worst unrest in the country for years

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

“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 describing the situation as 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.

Hundreds of victims

"I counted 218 dead bodies at Masalaci Jummaa (mosque). There are many other bodies in the streets," a Red Cross official who asked not to be named told Reuters.

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.

"So far about 400 bodies have been brought to the mosque following the outbreak of violence," the worst sectarian riots since President Umaru Yar'Adua took office last year, Khaled Abubakar, the imam of the central mosque in Jos, told AFP.

"Families are coming to identify and claim the bodies, while those that cannot be identified or nobody claims them will be interred by the mosque," Abubakar said.

Thousands displaced

Thousands of people fled their homes and were sheltering in government buildings and religious centers, the Red Cross said.

"So far over 10,000 people have been displaced from their homes and are now seeking refuge in churches, mosques and army and police barracks," a Nigerian Red Cross official in Jos, Dan Tom, said.

"I can't give any figures but there are dead bodies on the streets that are yet to be evacuated. We are afraid of an outbreak of an epidemic if they are allowed to decompose," he told AFP.

"In these places where people are taking refuge, there is no water and no food. We call on the Nigerian emergency management agencies to come to their aid," he added.

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.

"The situation demanded that we send in additional troops from neighboring states," Nigerian army spokesman Brigadier General Emeka Onwuamaegbu told Reuters. Military checkpoints were set up around the city and soldiers helped clear bodies from the streets.

So far over 10,000 people have been displaced from their homes and are now seeking refuge in churches, mosques and army and police barracks,

Nigeria Red Cross official in Jos, Dan Tom

Muslims vs Christians

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.

Local residents said several churches and mosques were razed in the violence, which started with a rumor that the All Nigerian Peoples Party (ANPP) had lost the local election to the federal ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP).

The ANPP is perceived in Jos to be a predominantly Muslim party, and the PDP to be mainly Christian.

"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, Africa’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