MAIDUGURI, Nigeria — Nigerian Muslims protesting caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad attacked Christians and burned churches on Saturday, killing at least 15 people in the deadliest confrontation yet in the whirlwind of Muslim anger over the drawings.
It was the first major protest to erupt over the issue in Africa’s most populous nation. An Associated Press reporter saw mobs of Muslim protesters swarm through the city center with machetes, sticks and iron rods. One group threw a tire around a man, poured gas on him and setting him ablaze.
In Libya, the parliament suspended the interior minister after at least 11 people died when his security forces attacked rioters who torched the Italian consulate in Benghazi.
Right-wing Italian Reforms Minister Roberto Calderoli resigned under pressure, accused of fueling the fury in Benghazi by wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with one of the offending cartoons, first published nearly five months ago in a Danish newspaper.
Danish church officials met with a top Muslim cleric in Cairo, meanwhile, but made no significant headway in defusing the conflict.
And in what has become a daily event, tens of thousands of Muslims protested — this time in Britain, Pakistan and Austria — to denounce the perceived insult.
But it was in Nigeria, where mutual suspicions between Christians and Muslims have led to thousands of deaths in recent years, that tensions boiled over into sectarian violence.
Thousands of rioters burned 15 churches in Maiduguri in a three-hour rampage before troops and police reinforcements restored order, Nigerian police spokesman Haz Iwendi said. Security forces arrested dozens of people, Iwendi said.
Chima Ezeoke, a Christian Maiduguri resident, said protesters attacked and looted shops owned by minority Christians, most of them with origins in the country’s south.
“Most of the dead were Christians beaten to death on the streets by the rioters,” Ezeoke said. Witnesses said three children and a priest were among those killed.
Nigeria, with a population of more than 130 million, is roughly divided between a predominantly Muslim north and a mainly Christian south.
Thousands of people have died in this West African country since 2000 in religious violence fueled by the adoption of the strict Islamic legal code by a dozen states in the north, seen by most Christians as a move to impose religious hegemony on non-Muslims.
The Danish cartoons, including one showing Muhammad wearing a bomb-shaped turban with an ignited fuse, have set off sometimes violent protests around the world.
After the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten printed the caricatures in September, other Western newspapers, mostly in Europe, followed suit, asserting their news value and the right to freedom of expression.
But Nigeria has been spared much of the violence seen elsewhere in the world, though lawmakers in the heavily Muslim state of Kano burned Danish and Norwegian flags and barred Danish companies from bidding on a major construction project. Kano lawmakers also called on the state’s 5 million people to boycott Danish goods.
45 deaths worldwide
With Saturday’s deaths, at least 45 people have been killed in protests across the Muslim world, according to a count by The Associated Press.
In the violence in Libya, Seif el-Islam Gadhafi, the son of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, said four of the 11 dead were believed to have been Egyptians or Palestinians.
“Setting the consulate on fire was a mistake, but using excessive force was the most tragic response,” the younger Gadhafi said, explaining the suspension of Interior Minister Nasr al-Mabrouk.
Gadhafi expressed pride, however, that the demonstrators were behind Calderoli’s resignation when “other Arab states refused or lagged behind in taking revenge for insults to their religion.”
Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi blamed the riots in Libya, Italy’s former colony, on “thoughtless action by our minister,” the Italian news agency ANSA quoted him as saying.
In Cairo, Bishop Karsten Nissen, of Denmark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, met with Grand Imam Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi of al-Azhar University, the world’s highest Sunni Muslim seat of learning.
Tantawi said the Danish prime minister must apologize for the drawings and further demanded that the world’s religious leaders, including him and Pope Benedict XVI, should meet to write a law that “condemns insulting any religion, including the Holy Scriptures and the prophets.” He said the United Nations should then impose the law on all countries.
In response, Nissen did not address the issue of a global law but said it was impossible for Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen to apologize for what a newspaper had published.
“I have brought to his excellency (Tantawi) the apology of the newspaper, but our prime minister did not draw these cartoons. Our prime minister is not the editor of this newspaper. He cannot apologize for something he did not do,” Nissen said.
Riots across Pakistan
In central Pakistan, four people were wounded when shots were fired during another protest over publication of the controversial cartoons.
The shooting occurred as protesters pelted police with stones and tried to block a road in the town of Chiniot in the central province of Punjab, a local police official told Reuters.
He said it was unclear whether police or protesters fired the shots.
Clerics at mosques across Pakistan condemned the caricatures at Friday prayers.
“Give enough power to the Muslim countries and enable them to take revenge,” said Qari Saeed Ullah, a prayer leader in Islamabad.
Five people have been killed in Islamic Pakistan this week during violent demonstrations against the satirical cartoons.
Earlier, a Pakistani cleric was placed under house detention after announcing a $1 million bounty for killing one of the cartoonists who drew the caricatures, as thousands rallied across the country and authorities arrested scores of protesters.
Reward on cartoonist’s head
In Denmark, where the prophet drawings were first published in September, the government said Friday it had temporarily closed its embassy in Pakistan following the violent protests this week.
Pakistan recalled its ambassador to Denmark for “consultations” about the caricatures, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said.
Mohammed Yousaf Qureshi, prayer leader at the historic Mohabat Khan mosque in the conservative northwestern city of Peshawar, announced the mosque and the Jamia Ashrafia religious school he leads would give a $25,000 reward and a car for killing the cartoonist who drew the prophet caricatures — considered blasphemous by Muslims.
He also said a local jewelers’ association would give $1 million, but no representative of the association was available to confirm the offer.
“Whoever has done this despicable and shameful act, he has challenged the honor of Muslims. Whoever will kill this cursed man, he will get $1 million from the association of the jewelers bazaar, 1 million rupees ($16,700) from Masjid Mohabat Khan and 500,000 rupees ($8,350) and a car from Jamia Ashrafia as a reward,” Qureshi told about 1,000 people outside the mosque after Friday prayers.
“This is a unanimous decision by all imams (prayer leaders) of Islam that whoever insults the prophets deserves to be killed and whoever will take this insulting man to his end, will get this prize.”
Qureshi did not name any cartoonist in his announcement and did not appear to be aware that 12 different people had drawn the pictures. The crowd outside the mosque burned a Danish flag and an effigy of the Danish prime minister.
The Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten first printed the prophet drawings by 12 cartoonists in September. The newspaper has since apologized to Muslims for the drawings, one of them showing Muhammad wearing a bomb-shaped turban with an ignited fuse.
Cartoonists go underground
Other Western newspapers, mostly in Europe but also some in the United States, have reprinted the pictures, asserting their news value and the right to freedom of expression.
A spokesman for Jyllands-Posten did not want to comment on Qureshi’s offer.
“We are not going to discuss this with that kind of people,” Tage Clausen said.
The cartoonists have gone underground and lived under police protection since the conflict started escalating last year. The president of the Danish Journalist Union, Mogens Blicher Bjerregaard, who is a spokesman for the cartoonists, would not say whether security surrounding them had been increased.
In Islamabad, former President Clinton criticized the drawings but said Muslims wasted an opportunity to build better ties with the West by mounting violent protests.
“I can tell you most people in the United States deeply respect Islam ... and most people in Europe do,” he said.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.