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Week of strife in Nigeria claims at least 146 lives

Christians burn bodies of Muslims slain during riots

ONITSHA, Nigeria -- Christian youths burned the corpses of Muslims yesterday on the streets of Onitsha in southeastern Nigeria, the city worst hit by religious riots that have killed at least 146 people across the country in five days.

Christian mobs, seeking revenge for the killings of Christians in the north, attacked Muslims with machetes, set fire to them, destroyed their houses, and torched mosques in two days of violence in Onitsha, where 93 people died.

''We are very happy that this thing is happening so that the north will learn their lesson," said Anthony Umai, a motorcycle taxi rider, standing close to where Christian youths had piled up the corpses of 10 Muslims and were burning them.

Dozens more corpses had been thrown into the back of pickup trucks by security services overnight, residents said.

Uncertainty over Nigeria's political future is aggravating regional, ethnic, and religious rivalries in Africa's most populous nation and top oil exporter.

Elections are due next year and many Nigerians believe President Olusegun Obasanjo and some state governors will try to stay on after eight years in power. The prospect angers those who want their own ethnic or regional blocs to have their turn.

Militants in the oil-producing Niger Delta have waged a three-month campaign of attacks and kidnappings, which has cut exports and driven up world oil prices. One of their demands is greater control over their region and its resources.

There was no fighting in Onitsha yesterday, but Emeka Umeh, of the Civil Liberties Organization, called it ''the peace of the graveyard."

Some charred corpses were still lying on the streets and hundreds of Muslim men, women, and children fled the city crammed into open-top trucks for fear of more killings. Thousands more were hiding in army barracks and police stations.

Umeh said most of the bodies his group counted were Hausa, but some Ibo were killed, too. The Hausa are the main ethnic group in northern Nigeria and most are Muslim, while the Ibo are dominant in the southeast and almost all are Christian.

It is impossible to verify the exact number of deaths, but Red Cross figures from all the different cities give a toll of 146. Local authorities decline to give death tolls.

In northern Maiduguri, where the Christian Association of Nigeria says 50 Christians were killed in a weekend riot that began as a protest against cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad, tensions were high during several Christian funerals.

The Red Cross said at least 21 people died in Maiduguri and 9,000 were driven from their homes.

A crowd of Christian youths broke away from the burial of one of the victims, a Catholic priest, and ran shouting through the streets before police dispersed them.

At the funeral of 13 children from two families who were burnt in their houses, mourners wailed as police stood by.

News of the Maiduguri killings set off the bloodletting in Onitsha, and tit-for-tat violence spread on Wednesday to Enugu, another southeastern city, where seven people were killed.

Nigeria's 140 million people are divided about equally between Muslims in the north and Christians in the south, but sizable religious minorities live in both regions.

Thousands of people have been killed in religious violence since the restoration of democracy in 1999. Killings in one part of the country often spark reprisals elsewhere.

The triggers for riots that killed at least 46 people, mostly Christians, in northern Maiduguri, Bauchi, and Katsina, were different, but religious and secular leaders have linked them to political tensions.

In Bauchi, an alleged blasphemy started the trouble, while in Katsina it was a constitutional review that many see as an attempt to keep Obasanjo in power.

The constitution bars Obasanjo, a Christian from the southwest, from seeking a third term in 2007 and he says he will uphold the charter. But he has declined to comment on a powerful movement to amend the constitution to allow him to stay.

Maiduguri and Katsina are both hosting public hearings on constitutional reform this week, which many Nigerians believe are geared toward furthering the so-called third-term agenda.

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