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Fearing more religious violence, Muslims flee Nigerian town

Attacks leave hundreds dead

YELWA, Nigeria -- Injured, hungry, and grieving Muslims abandoned their central Nigerian town yesterday amid stalled efforts to mediate a conflict that has left an estimated 500 dead in attacks by fighters of a predominantly Christian tribe.

''They came from God, they go back to God," 49-year-old Jumai Isa said of her husband and five children, shot and hacked to death by men wearing charcoal body paint and bandannas. ''Now I want to go away."

A Red Cross team visiting Yelwa estimated Thursday that there were ''500 to 600 killed" by Christian Tarok-speakers during attacks Sunday and Tuesday, team leader Umar Abdu Mairiga said.

He cited witness reports and an inspection of a mass grave that Hausa-speaking Muslim residents said contained at least 280 bodies.

The Christian Tarok farmers and predominantly Muslim Hausa traders and cattle herdsmen have launched back-and-forth raids since September 2001, when more than 1,000 people were killed in an outbreak of religious violence in city of Jos.

Religious, ethnic, and political enmities have fueled outbreaks of communal bloodshed that have left more than 10,000 dead since President Olusegun Obasanjo's 1999 election ended 15 years of repressive military rule in Africa's most populous nation.

The assailants in this week's attacks used cans of kerosene to burn hundreds, possibly thousands of homes and vehicles and several mosques in Yelwa, 210 miles east of the capital of Abuja.

One hundred people were reported missing, many of them women and children who allegedly were abducted by the fighters, Mairiga said.

Some Christians also reportedly were killed. Nanman Anthony, a 35-year-old Tarok farmer, said Hausa fighters cut him on the back and head with machetes, then left him for dead. Another Tarok man carried him to nearby Shendam, a Christian community.

Nigerian Red Cross head Emmanuel Ijewere said yesterday the organization was unable to determine a firm death toll and could only verify that 7,500 residents had been evacuated from Yelwa and surrounding villages.

Police, who traditionally play down casualties to discourage retaliatory attacks, said just 80 were confirmed killed.

In February, Muslim militants were blamed for killing nearly 50 people in Yelwa, including many victims slain while they were seeking refuge in a church.

An emergency mediation committee intended to bring together rival leaders suffered a setback after Obasanjo named a prominent Muslim leader Thursday to head it, drawing condemnation from Christians who constitute the majority in the central state of Plateau, where the attacks occurred.

''We are not quarreling with the panel, only the man who is heading it," said Samuel Salifu, leader of the region's Christian association.

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