Religious clashes claim over 200 lives

JOS, Nigeria - Sporadic Bursts of gunfire rattled the central Nigerian city of Jos yesterday as security forces tried to prevent more clashes between Muslim and Christian gangs in which hundreds of people have been killed.

Rival ethnic and religious mobs have burned homes, shops, mosques and churches in fighting triggered by a disputed local election in a city at the crossroads of Nigeria's Muslim north and Christian south. It is the country's worst unrest for years.

Hundreds of people gathered outside the main mosque where members of the Muslim community have been bringing their dead.

A Red Cross worker said on Saturday he had counted 218 bodies awaiting burial in the building. The overall death toll was expected to be much higher, with some victims already buried and others taken to hospitals and places of worship.

"They are still picking dead bodies outside. Some areas were not reachable until now," said Al Mansur, a 53-year-old farmer who said all the homes around his had been razed.

Soldiers patrolled on foot and in Jeeps to enforce a 24-hour curfew imposed on the worst-hit areas. Overturned and burnt-out vehicles littered the streets while several churches, a block of houses and a school in one neighbourhood were gutted by fire.

The Red Cross said around 7000 people had fled their homes and were sheltering in government buildings, an army barracks and religious centres. A senior police officer said five neighbourhoods had been hit by unrest and 523 people detained.

Nigeria's 140 million people are roughly equally split between Muslims and Christians and the two communities generally live peacefully side by side.

But ethnic and religious tensions in the country's "middle belt" have bubbled for years, rooted in resentment by indigenous minority groups, mostly Christian or animist, towards migrants and settlers from the Hausa-speaking Muslim north.

The latest clashes between gangs of Muslim Hausas and mostly Christian Beroms began on Friday and were provoked by a disputed local government chairmanship election - Reuters