Bodies and debris burn in Onitsha, Nigeria
George Osodi  /  AP
People pass by bodies amid burning tires and debris Thursday in a street in Onitsha, Nigeria. Muslims fled the city and corpses still smoldered in its streets Thursday as two days of sectarian violence that killed scores subsided.
updated 2/23/2006 6:07:11 PM ET 2006-02-23T23:07:11

Christians in this southern Nigerian city burned Muslim corpses and defaced wrecked mosques Thursday after days of sectarian strife that has killed more than 120 people across the country.

With 80 people killed, Onitsha has borne the brunt of the violence that followed weekend protests over the publication of cartoons of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad.

A Muslim district of about 100 homes was burned to the ground, and crumpled corrugated tin roofs lay on top of the remains of smoldering houses Thursday.

Ifeanyi Ese, a 34-year-old Christian, stood amid the concrete rubble of a mosque. “We don’t want these mosques here anymore. These people are causing all the problems all over the world because they don’t fear God,” he said.

He angrily scrawled “Mohammed is a man, but Jesus is from above” with a burned stick on a shattered wall.

At least nine charred bodies lay in dirt streets as passers-by hurried past, holding cloths to their noses against the stench. Three other bodies burned on a pyre of flaming tires.

Muslims flee city
About 5,000 Muslims fled the city and took refuge across the Niger River in the neighboring town of Asaba. Several hundred sat beneath trees at a police barracks there, asking for help to travel northward as babies wailed.

Trucks that usually carry fruit and other goods to market were packed with Muslims heading north. It was not known how many Muslims lived in Onitsha.

Adam Mohamed, a 40-year-old Muslim motorcycle mechanic, said mobs attacked and robbed Muslims as they fled across a bridge connecting the two cities.

“Some were killed. Others were thrown from the bridge into the water,” Mohamed said. “These people attacked us, burned our mosques and killed our people. But by God’s grace, I escaped.”

Renewal of old violence
Thousands of Nigerians have died in sectarian strife since 2000, when mostly Muslim northern states began implementing Islamic Shariah law. Nigeria’s 130 million people are almost entirely split between the two faiths, with Christians a majority in the south.

The most recent killings began when Muslim protests against the cartoons Saturday in the northern city of Maiduguri turned violent and 18 people, mostly Christians, were slain.

Twenty-five died in similar violence in the northern city of Bauchi, sparking reprisals against Muslims in Onitsha.

A spokeswoman for the Nigerian Red Cross, Umo Okon, said 925 people were killed, injured or displaced in violence in Onitsha over the past two days.

Emeka Umeh, who heads Civil Liberties Organization, a leading human rights group, said at least 60 people were killed in Onitsha Tuesday, followed by 20 Wednesday.

Many Muslims in the city Thursday seemed resigned to their fate.

‘All we can do is run’
“The prophet told us to accept what happens to us because it is our destiny,” said Abdul Salaam Danbuzu, a 26-year-old shepherd from neighboring Niger. “We’re a small community and now we must all leave. All we can do is run.”

Gov. Chris Ngige extended a curfew imposed on Onitsha to the nearby towns of Nnewi and the state capital of Awka, where Muslim northerners were attacked and killed Wednesday, local government radio reported.

Deaths also were reported by residents in violence Wednesday against Muslims in Enugu, a mainly Christian and ethnic Igbo-dominated city about 60 miles north of Onitsha.

The latest outbreak of fighting is the worst to hit Nigeria since 2004, when Muslim-Christian skirmishes in northern Nigeria’s Plateau and Kano states killed more than 700 people.

The cartoons that reignited Muslim-Christian tension in Nigeria have become the object of protests around the world since they were published in a Danish newspaper. One caricature shows Muhammad wearing a bomb-shaped turban with a lit fuse.

Islam widely holds that representations of Muhammad are banned for fear they could lead to idolatry.

“The Muslims brought this fracas,” said Ezekiel Haledon, a Christian, looking at a burned body in a potholed street in Onitsha, its teeth bared by scorched lips.

“It’s not a Christian act to kill your neighbor,” he said. “But it’s like that.”

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