At least 17 people, including a Catholic priest, were killed and 30 churches burned in the northeast Nigerian city of Maiduguri when Muslims protesting cartoons caricaturing the Prophet Muhammad turned on local Christians, police said.
Nigerian police spokesman Haz Iwendi said a crowd of protesters in the predominantly Muslim city targeted the Christian minority, burning and looting their shops and churches on Saturday.
“We can confirm that 17 persons were killed, 30 churches and five hotels were also burnt,” Iwendi told IRIN.
Police eventually dispersed the demonstrators and reinforcements of policemen and soldiers have been sent in to patrol the city, the capital of Borno State in northeastern Nigeria, which is now calm, the police spokesman said.
Initially published in a Denmark newspaper in September the cartoons — one depicting the Prophet wearing a turban resembling a bomb — sparked outrage among Muslims worldwide. Muslims say that the caricatures are blasphemous as Islam bars all images of Muhammad, and that the images associated Islam with terrorism.
Felix Usman, the priest in charge of St Augustine’s Catholic Church in Maiduguri, said he was lucky to escape when his church was attacked and burned by protesters. Another colleague, Matthew Gajere, in charge of St Rita’s Catholic Church, was burned to death by rioters inside his church, Usman said.
Usman said when the protesters attacked he called the police on the phone for help but was told they did not have enough officers to respond.
Borno State governor Amodu Sheriff in a broadcast to the state on Sunday declared a dusk-to-dawn curfew and announced the formation of a special panel to investigate the circumstances of the violence.
Initial protests to the cartoons by Nigerian Muslims were relatively peaceful. Two weeks ago lawmakers in Kano, a state also in the north, burned Danish and Norwegian flags in front of the parliament building to express their anger over the cartoons. They also voted to cancel contracts won by Danish companies in the state and called for a boycott of Danish goods.
Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country with more than 126 million people, almost evenly divided between a largely Muslim north and a predominantly Christian south. Thousands of people have died in religious clashes since the end of military rule in 1999 but the underlying motivations are often economic rather than religious.
ONITSHA, Nigeria, Feb. 23 Dozens of charred, smoldering bodies littered the streets of this bustling commercial center on Thursday after three days of rioting in which Christian mobs wielding machetes, clubs and knives set upon their Muslim neighbors.
Rioters have killed scores of people here, mostly Muslims, after burning their homes, businesses and mosques in the worst violence yet linked to the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad first published in a Danish newspaper. The violence in Nigeria began with attacks on Christians in the northern part of the country last week by Muslims infuriated over the cartoons.
Now old ethnic and political tensions between Muslims in the north and Christians here in the south have been reignited, with at least 33 bodies still visible on the streets of Onitsha on Thursday and a local organization that has tried to collect the scattered corpses reporting that it has already picked up 80 others.
The cycle of tit-for-tat sectarian violence has pushed the death toll in the last week well beyond 100, making Nigeria the hardest-hit country so far in the caricature controversy.
The main thoroughfare leading into the city across the Niger River was covered in bodies of Muslim Hausas who had tried to flee rampaging bands of youths, witnesses said. Many of the victims appeared to have been beaten to death; most of the bodies had been doused with gasoline and burned.
Residents combed through the destroyed shops and homes of Muslims, looting whatever the flames had not carried away.
“These things belong to Igbos,” said Sunday Tagbo, 25, referring to the dominant ethnic group of this region, more commonly known worldwide as Ibos, as he helped himself to sooty car parts left behind by fleeing merchants. “This is Igbo land. No more Muslims can live here.”
City and state officials urged calm, and a semblance of the ordinary returned to the city’s streets on Thursday, with markets open and heavy traffic on the streets. But the damage of three days of carnage was evident. At the central mosque, rioters burned the building and hacked down trees surrounding it.
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