ONITSHA, Nigeria, Feb 23 (Reuters) At least 138 Nigerians died in five days of rioting by Muslims and Christians across Africa's most populous nation, where uncertainty over the political future is exacerbating ethnic and religious tensions.
In mainly Christian Onitsha in the southeast, at least 85 people were killed in two days of mob violence, human rights group the Civil Liberties Organisation said today.
Christian youths rampaged through the streets attacking Muslims with cutlasses and setting fire to them with petrol to avenge the killing of at least 46 people, mostly Christians, by Muslim mobs in the north.
''Dead bodies were littered in various parts of Onitsha. We counted 60 on Tuesday and 25 yesterday,'' said Emeka Umeh, head of CLO in Anambra state, where Onitsha is located.
''The majority of victims were Hausas but some Ibos were killed too,'' Umeh said. He gave a detailed breakdown of numbers of bodies sighted in specific areas.
The Hausa are the main ethnic group in northern Nigeria and most of them are Muslims, while the Ibo are the dominant tribe in the southeast and they are almost all Christians.
The Anambra police commissioner declined to give a death toll, but he said about 11,000 people, mostly Hausas, had fled their homes and were camping in army barracks or police stations, too frightened to venture out.
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.
Thousands of people have been killed in religious violence since the restoration of democracy in 1999, and killings in one part of the country often trigger reprisals elsewhere.
The killings in Onitsha started when news emerged of Ibo deaths in the north. yesterday the tit-for-tat violence spread to Enugu, another Ibo city in the southeast, where seven people were killed.
In Onitsha, Ibo mobs torched mosques and shanty towns where Hausas lived, while thousands of looters invaded Hausa markets.
POLITICAL ROOTS Sectarian violence in Nigeria often has roots in politics as leaders manipulate religious sentiment to bolster their power bases.
Religious and secular leaders have linked this week's violence in three northern cities to rising political tensions.
In Maiduguri and Bauchi, the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad and an alleged blasphemy started the trouble. In Katsina the trigger was a constitutional review which is controversial because many see it as an attempt to keep President Olusegun Obasanjo in power longer.
Under the constitution, Obasanjo cannot seek a third term in 2007 elections and he says he will uphold the charter. But he has declined to comment on a powerful lobby to amend the constitution to allow him to stay.
The idea of a third term is unpopular with a wide range of interest groups across Nigeria. In the north, most people feel the presidency should go to a Muslim northerner in 2007 after eight years of Obasanjo, a Christian from the southwest.
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.
The third term campaign is also unpopular in the south, the heart of Nigeria's oil industry, because ethnic Ijaw groups want the presidency for themselves.
Ijaw militants have taken nine foreigners hostage and staged a devastating string of attacks against the world's eighth largest oil exporter, cutting output by a fifth.
REUTERS SHR PM1705