At least 27 dead in new religious riots in Nigeria
ONITSHA, Nigeria, Feb 22 (Reuters) - Revenge attacks against Muslims killed at least 27 people in southeastern Nigeria on Wednesday after anti-Christian violence killed dozens and left thousands homeless in the mainly Muslim north.
The slaughter raised the death toll from five days of religious riots fuelled by political tensions in Africa's most populous country to at least 73, and possibly many more.
"There are thousands of boys with cutlasses and sticks on the rampage. I've counted at least 20 bodies here by the Onitsha bridge," said Reuters photographer George Esiri in the southeastern commercial hub of Onitsha.
"They are Hausas. Some of them are burnt and some have their stomachs cut open," he said.
The Hausa are the main ethnic group in the north, while Onitsha is located in the ethnic Ibo heartland. Rioting started in Onitsha on Tuesday after news of the northern riots emerged.
The catalysts were different in the three northern cities hit by violence, but observers say their underlying cause was uncertainty over Nigeria's political future and particularly suspicions President Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christian southerner, plans a third term.
The revenge violence spread on Wednesday to Enugu, another southeastern city, where the Red Cross said at least seven people were killed and 150 injured.
In Onitsha, troops and police were unable to contain the violence. A group of soldiers prevented the mob from crossing the Niger River bridge into neighbouring Delta state, but did not attempt to stop the killing.
"We are evacuating some internally displaced people to Asaba for temporary sheltering because they were being overcome and attacked in places where they were initially camped, such as police stations," said a Red Cross official in Lagos.
A doctor at Onitsha general hospital said police carried in 20 corpses, but it was impossible to verify if these were the same people as the doctor did not know where the corpses had come from. The local police commissioner declined to comment.
Oliver Onah, an Onitsha resident, said he saw an enraged mob burn two policemen to death at a roundabout in the city.
Nigeria's 140 million people are split roughly equally between Muslims in the north and Christians in the south, though sizeable religious and ethnic minorities live in both regions.
Religious violence is often stoked by political leaders seeking to bolster their own power bases. Fighting in one part of the country usually sparks reprisal killings elsewhere.
There was no official death toll from Tuesday's fighting in Onitsha but a security source said there were at least a dozen fatalities, possibly many more, while the Red Cross said 325 people were injured and 2,000 displaced.
In the northern cities of Maiduguri, Bauchi and Katsina, at least 46 people were killed and thousands were left homeless during four days of clashes between Muslims and Christians.
In Maiduguri and Bauchi, religious disputes started the trouble while in Katsina the trigger was a constitutional review which is controversial because many see it as an attempt to keep Obasanjo in power.
"The political atmosphere in the nation is already very bad and with high poverty there are a lot of unemployed youths. That is why this kind of crisis starts easily," said Adamu Abubakar, a Red Cross official in Bauchi.
The violence in Katsina and Maiduguri broke out days before the two cities were due to stage public hearings on constitutional reform.
Most Nigerians think the real goal of the hearings is to push for an amendment to the section on presidential tenure, to allow Obasanjo to seek a third term in 2007 elections.
The state governor of the northeastern Nigerian state of Borno called for the removal of all tenure limits on elected office holders at a constitutional review hearing there on Wednesday while thousands of protesters gathered outside.
There is strong opposition to a third term in the north because many there feel the presidency should go to one of them in 2007 after eight years of Obasanjo. (Additional reporting by Ijeoma Ezekwere and Chukwujama Eze in Enugu, Tume Ahemba in Lagos)