Hundreds feared dead in Nigeria

Christians attack Muslims in dispute over land use

May 07, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

DAKAR, Senegal - An attack by a Christian militia against a mainly Muslim town in central Nigeria has left several hundred people dead, according to news reports from the area.

The incident, which took place Sunday in the village of Yelwa, is the latest eruption in a long-standing dispute between herders, who are Muslims from the Hausa-Fulani ethnic group, and farmers, who are ethnic Tarok Christians.

Reuters and Agence France-Presse quoted two Muslim community leaders as saying that 630 bodies have been buried since the attack. The figure was corroborated by a local Red Cross team, according to the French news agency.

"All the bodies were gathered at the traditional leader's house and then were buried behind it," Umar Abdu Mairiga, the national disaster management officer for the Nigerian Red Cross, said in the news agency report.

In a telephone interview from Lagos, the Nigerian Red Cross president, Emmanuel Ijewere, said he could not confirm the number and warned that casualty figures could be inflated by self-interested parties in a strife-torn area.

Earlier this week, police estimated the death toll at 67, but acknowledged that they had been unable to enter Yelwa because its attackers had blocked access to the town. Journalists in the area yesterday reported 10 fresh graves in a walled compound behind the home of the local chief.

Nigeria is Africa's most-populous country, with an estimated population of 130 million divided roughly in half between Christians and Muslims and torn by tensions among 200 ethnic groups. Sectarian tensions had been repressed under years of military rule but have sprung forth since the coming of democratic rule five years ago.

The Yelwa killings are the latest in a series of reprisal attacks between farmers and herders competing for land in central Nigeria. The first and most alarming incident took place in September 2001, when 1,000 people died in one week during clashes in the central Nigerian city of Jos. Several tit-for-tat attacks have followed.

This week, in the northern state of Jigawa, near the border with Niger, six people were killed when Nigerian farmers clashed with ethnic Fulani nomads from Niger who drove their cattle onto Nigerian farmland, news agencies reported.

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