ABUJA, Feb 22 (Reuters) Security forces guarded religious buildings and patrolled streets in several Nigerian cities today after violence rooted in rising political tensions killed dozens of people and forced thousands from their homes.
Cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad, rumours of a Koran desecration and opposition to constitutional change provided the catalysts for four days of fighting between Muslims and Christians in predominantly Muslim northern cities. Then there were revenge attacks in one mainly Christian southern city.
But in Africa's most populous country the underlying causes of sectarian clashes are often political and observers say this round of violence is no exception.
''The political atmosphere in the nation is already very bad and with high poverty there are a lot of unemployed youths. That is why this kind of crisis starts easily,'' said Adamu Abubakar, a Red Cross official in the northeastern city of Bauchi.
Eighteen bodies lay in a hospital mortuary in Bauchi, he said, and more people were thought to have died and been quickly buried by relatives during two days of sectarian fighting that also left 110 people seriously injured.
''We have 600 families, or about 3,000 people in total, who have been displaced and are seeking refuge in army barracks, a police station and two churches where they are being protected by a joint police and army force,'' Abubakar told Reuters.
He said many would be homeless for a long time as their houses had been completely destroyed, and the Red Cross would set up a longer-term displaced persons' camp.
Two churches and one mosque were torched during the rioting, he added. All religious buildings were now under guard and security patrols were out in force to break up any crowd.
The violence in Bauchi followed riots that killed at least 28 people and possibly more than 50 over the weekend in Maiduguri and Katsina, two other northern cities.
REPRISAL KILLINGS Nigeria's 140 million people are split roughly equally between Muslims in the north and Christians in the south, although sizeable religious minorities live in most cities.
Religious violence in one part of the country often sparks reprisal killings elsewhere, and yesterday there were revenge attacks in the southeastern commercial hub Onitsha, where Christians killed Muslims and torched mosques.
There was no official death toll but a security source said at least a dozen people died in Onitsha, possibly many more.
Red Cross Secretary General Orebiyi Abiodun said he had received reports of 325 people injured and about 2,000 displaced in Onitsha.
Many were hiding in barracks and police stations.
Both Katsina and Maiduguri are scheduled to stage public hearings on constitutional reform that start today.
These are ostensibly to consider many changes to the charter, but most Nigerians think the real goal is to push for an amendment to the section on presidential tenure, to allow President Olusegun Obasanjo to seek a third term.
There is strong opposition to a third term in the north because many there feel the presidency should go to one of them in 2007 after eight years of Obasanjo, a Christian southerner.
Obasanjo says he will uphold the constitution, which allows a president to stay in office for two terms. But he has not commented on efforts by some supporters to have the charter changed so that he can stand again.
REUTERS SHR PM1729