IPOLLOR, Nigeria, April 28 (Reuters) - More than 100 people have been killed in two weeks of clashes between rival farming communities in southeast Nigeria, local leaders said on Thursday.
Members of a tiny minority tribe in Cross River state accuse their neighbours in Ebonyi state, who are part of the huge Ibo tribe, of settling on their traditional lands and trying to take political control of the region.
Peter Chigbe Ilop, a leader of the Ipollor community in Cross River, said more than 70 of his people had so far died in the fighting, while Joe Nwonumara, chairman of the Izzi local council in Ebonyi, said 37 had died on his side.
"This is the first time we are witnessing this kind of thing in our lives," said Ilop. "The people of Izzi have become a thorn in our flesh."
Across Nigeria, at least 11,000 people have been killed in ethnic, religious and communal warfare in the five years since democracy returned in 1999.
Africa's most populous nation with 140 million people, Nigeria is divided into more than 250 distinct ethnic groups.
In the Ipollor area, each side blames the other for starting the fighting in mid-April, after lengthy talks to resolve the dispute peacefully.
This correspondent saw more than 150 mud-brick houses burned to the ground in several different settlements in the area on Thursday. Several food storage huts had also been looted.
"The people of Izzi attacked our local market on April 12, looted it, set it ablaze and raped a pregnant woman. We were provoked," said Ilop.
Police said earlier this week that they had brought the fighting under control, but this correspondent saw groups of armed militants roaming the area on Thursday and extorting money from passers-by.
In a large compound of burned houses in Ipollor, located in Yalla district about 80 km (50 miles) from the Cameroon border, about 200 militants wearing charms on their arms and heads held what appeared to be a war council with village elders.
"We wear them for our own protection. It makes us invincible to enemy fire," said one militant who smelled strongly of alcohol and marijuana smoke.
The Igbeagu people of Ebonyi had been complaining for months that they were denied farm leases in Ipollor even after, they alleged, they had paid for them, Nwonumara said.
They also complain of marginalisation in the political affairs of Ipollor, despite having lived there for many years.
Nwonumara said it was wrong "for Igbeagu people to be denied their farming rights and discriminated against in an area where their forefathers had lived since time immemorial".
Residents of the Ipollor community, on the other hand, call the Ibos settlers and accuse them of trying to take over.
"They are settlers who have refused to pay us royalties. There can be no peace until they leave our lands, for refusing to accept that we are their landlords and they, our tenants," said Ilop.
Police, who routinely underestimate death tolls in Nigeria, said only three people had been killed.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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