ENUGU, Nigeria, Feb 21 (Reuters) Christian rioters killed Muslims and torched mosques in the southern Nigerian city of Onitsha today in retaliation for anti-Christian violence that killed dozens in the north, witnesses said.
A security source said the dead had yet to be counted but at least a dozen people were killed and authorities feared the toll could be much higher.
A Christian trader said young men armed with guns, stones and machetes tore through the market, attacking any Muslim in sight, and as he fled the violence he saw many dead bodies.
''I saw a husband and wife beaten and burnt alive at the River Niger Bridge head,'' said Oliver Onah, referring to an area where people who originate from predominantly Muslim northern Nigeria sell vegetables and livestock.
Another resident saw crowds of Muslims running towards an army barracks to seek refuge, while armed rioters pursued them.
He saw one burnt mosque, and the Red Cross said several mosques were torched and rioters made bonfires in the streets.
''We were driving when we ran into the rioters. I personally rescued one person and another was killed before my eyes,'' said Chuka Obele, a lawyer who works in the city centre.
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 usually sparks reprisal killings elsewhere. Often, the underlying causes are political as leaders manipulate religious sentiment to bolster their own power bases.
POLITICAL TENSIONS The police commissioner of Anambra state, where Onitsha is located, said he had deployed large numbers of riot police.
A Red Cross official said at least 39 people were taken to hospital in Onitsha. ''Thousands of people who have been displaced from their homes are now sheltered at the police and army barracks,'' the official said.
There had been fears of reprisals after riots in the northern cities of Maiduguri, Katsina and Bauchi killed at least 38 people according to the Red Cross, while 50 died in Maiduguri alone according to the Christian Association of Nigeria.
The triggers of the violence in the three northern cities were different. In Bauchi it was an argument over the Koran, in Maiduguri it started with protests over cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad and in Katsina it was about a political dispute.
Some religious leaders, both Christian and Muslim, said the violence was rooted in uncertainty over the political future -- specifically, a rumoured ambition by President Olusegun Obasanjo to stand for a third term in 2007.
Both Katsina and Maiduguri are scheduled to stage public hearings on constitutional reform that start tomorrow. 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 terms.
There is strong feeling against 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.
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