Religious Violence Jolts Nigerian City

President Olusegun Obasanjo called out the army Saturday to combat Muslim-Christian violence raging in a northern Nigerian city, where terrified residents told of churches and homes burned and bodies piling up in the streets.

Authorities in Jos, a hilltop city of 4 million, imposed a dawn-to-dusk curfew to quell the fighting, which erupted Friday night at the time of Muslim prayers — some said, when a Christian woman angered Muslims by trying to cross a street where Muslim men were kneeled over in prayer.

There was no word from overwhelmed local police on the death toll in the city 620 miles northeast of Nigeria's commercial capital, Lagos.

But residents cowering in homes with their families Saturday spoke of seeing dozens of bodies — and the bloodletting continuing.

"It just started raining — so I looked outside, and saw three corpses lying in front of my house," one woman, Susan Akele, told The Associated Press by telephone. "This is hell."

Obasanjo authorized the deployment of the army and went on state radio Saturday to appeal to religious and community leaders to assure that "peace reigns supreme in Jos."

"I wonder what sort of Muslims and Christians start burning churches and mosques — places where God is worshipped," Obasanjo said. "True believers in God cannot start killing other human beings."

The explosion of violence is the latest since the introduction of sharia, or Islamic law, in several northern states last year sparked bloody clashes between Christians and Muslims. Hundreds have died.

Nigeria, with 120 million people Africa's most populous nation, is divided into the predominantly Christian south and overwhelmingly Muslim north. Northerners dominate Nigeria's military, and wielded immense power during the 15 years of army rule, which ended in 1999 with Obasanjo's election.

Jos, where the government leaders are mainly Christian, has rejected the possibility of implementing Sharia. Religious tensions in the city had been rising following the recent appointment of a Muslim politician as chairman of a state committee to alleviate poverty.

Some accounts said the confrontation on the street outside a mosque sparked the conflict — an argument at first, escalating into armed clashes between Muslim and Christian youths.

Jos State Deputy Gov. Michael Bomang imposed a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew Friday night in an effort to prevent further violence. Speaking on state radio and television, he called soldiers and police into the streets.

Two churches — an Assemblies of God and Church of Christ — were torched during the rampage Friday in the mostly Muslim middle-class neighborhood of Kwararafa, the Lagos newspaper ThisDay reported.

There were unconfirmed reports of a mosque burned in the Nassarawa neighborhood where both Christians and Muslims live. Muslim-Christian fighting was also taking place in the rugged, impoverished neighborhood of Congo-Russia.

Zakar Davou, accountant at Mountain Greens Hotel in Holwshe, a suburb of southern Jos, said he saw Christian youths on Friday night setting up a makeshift roadblock, where they singled out suspected Muslims and burned their cars.

"Oh man, it is a terrible situation," Davou said, adding that he was allowed to pass unhindered because he is Christian.

On Saturday, state hospitals were said to be filling up with wounded and witnesses said major roads were blocked by youths armed with guns, machetes, clubs and other weapons.

Smoke was rising from homes burning in the city, said Mary Dung, a Christian resident of a neighborhood in southern Jos.

Rival bands had split her street into a Muslim side and a Christian side, and were shooting it out. "My neighbor was shot in front of my face," the woman said.

"Put us in your prayers!"