ONITSHA, Nigeria, Feb 23 (Reuters) Christian youths today burned the corpses of Muslims on the streets of Onitsha in southeastern Nigeria, the city worst hit by religious riots that have killed at least 138 people across the country in five days.
Christian mobs, seeking revenge for the killings of Christians in the north, attacked Muslims with cutlasses, destroyed their houses and torched mosques in two days of violence in Onitsha, where at least 85 people have 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 pick-up trucks by security services overnight, residents said.
Uncertainty over the political future is aggravating regional, ethnic and religious rivalries in Africa's most populous nation. Militants in the oil-producing south have waged a three-month campaign of attacks and kidnappings against the oil industry, which has cut exports and driven up world prices.
There was no fighting in Onitsha today morning but Emeka Umeh, of human rights group the Civil Liberties Organisation, called it ''the peace of the graveyard''.
Some 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 85 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.
Nigeria's 140 million people are divided about equally between Muslims in the north and Christians in the south, but sizeable religious minorities live in both regions.
Elections are due in 2007 and many Nigerians believe President Olusegun Obasanjo will try to stay on after eight years in power. The prospect angers those who feel the time has come for their ethnic or regional group to get the top job.
Also at stake in 2007 are the positions of many of the 36 powerful state governors. In some states, rivalries for those jobs are further raising tensions.
TIT-FOR-TAT Thousands of people have been killed in religious violence in Africa's top oil exporter since the restoration of democracy in 1999. Killings in one part of the country often spark reprisals elsewhere.
The triggers for riots that killed 46 people, mostly Christians, in the northern cities of Maiduguri, Bauchi and Katsina at the weekend were different, but religious and secular leaders have linked them to political tensions.
In Maiduguri and Bauchi, the international row over Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad and an alleged blasphemy started the trouble. In Katsina it was a constitutional review that many see as an attempt to keep Obasanjo in power.
Muslim rioters torched several churches and attacked Christians with guns, machetes and sticks.
News of the murders set off the bloodletting in Onitsha, and tit-for-tat violence yesterday spread to Enugu, another southeastern city, where seven people were killed.
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 towards furthering the so-called third term agenda.
In the north, most people feel the presidency should go to a Muslim northerner in 2007.
REUTERS SHR HS2144