TROOPS ON RED ALERT

JOS, NIGERIA - Soldiers patrolled the central Nigerian city of Jos yesterday as aid workers tried to assess the death toll after attacks on outlying communities, in which several hundred people were feared to have been killed.

JOS, NIGERIA - Soldiers patrolled the central Nigerian city of Jos yesterday as aid workers tried to assess the death toll after attacks on outlying communities, in which several hundred people were feared to have been killed.

Residents of three predominantly Christian settlements near Jos said Muslim herders from surrounding hills launched what appeared to be reprisal attacks in the early hours of Sunday following sectarian clashes that killed hundreds in January.

A Reuters reporter said he counted more than 100 bodies on Sunday in Dogo Nahawa, one of the three communities attacked, but victims were also brought to hospitals in Jos and some were quickly buried, making it difficult for officials to assess the toll.

"Soldiers are patrolling and everywhere remains calm. We estimate that 500 people have been killed but I think it should be a bit more than that," Plateau state commissioner for information Gregory Yenlong said.

Police spokesperson Mohammed Lerama said the official death toll recorded so far stood at about 55.

Death tolls have been highly politicised in previous outbreaks of unrest in central Nigeria, with various factions accused of either exaggerating the figures for political ends or downplaying them to try to douse the risk of reprisals.

A Red Cross spokesperson said the security situation was "still in disarray" and while its teams had been able to help evacuate some people to hospital in Jos, they were still trying to reach all the affected areas.

The latest unrest comes at a difficult time for acting president Goodluck Jonathan, who is trying to assert his authority while ailing President Umaru Yar'Adua remains too sick to govern.

Plateau state lies at the crossroads of Nigeria's Muslim north and Christian south, and fierce competition for control of fertile farmlands between indigenous groups and settlers from the north has repeatedly triggered unrest over the past decade.

The instability underscores the fragility of Africa's top energy producer as it approaches the campaign period for 2011 elections with uncertainty over who is in charge.

Yar'Adua returned from three months in a Saudi hospital, where he was being treated for a heart condition, almost two weeks ago, but has still not been seen in public. - Reuters

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