LAGOS, Nigeria – Bodies littered the streets of the southern Nigerian city of Onitsha on Wednesday as the death toll from days of Christian-Muslim violence across Nigeria rose to at least 96.
"I've counted more than 20 people killed today," said Onitsha resident Isotonu Achor after gangs of rioters armed with machetes and shotguns poured through the mainly Christian city.
"Major streets are littered with bodies of people killed today, most of them northerners," Achor said. Other witnesses also said they saw at least 20 dead.
Residents said soldiers had opened fire on a mob of ethnic Igbo Christians that tried to enter the military barracks after reports ethnic Hausa Muslims sheltering in the barracks had attacked a nearby primary school, killing a number of children.
The claims could not be verified and it was not clear if the soldiers killed anyone in the mob.
The deaths brought to at least 96 the number of people killed in Nigeria since sectarian violence first erupted Saturday in the northern city of Maiduguri, where Muslim protests against cartoons caricaturing the Prophet Muhammad turned violent, razing 30 churches and claiming the lives of 18 people, mostly Christians.
Similar violence followed Monday and Tuesday in the northern city of Bauchi, where witnesses and Red Cross officials say 25 people were killed when Muslim mobs attacked Christians there.
Nigeria, Africa's most populous country of more than 130 million people, is roughly divided between a predominantly Muslim north and a mainly Christian south. Thousands of people have died in religious violence since 2000.
Bauchi was tense but calm on Wednesday, with police and soldiers patrolling the city.
In Onitsha, residents and witnesses said two mosques were burned down and least 30 people were killed Tuesday, most of them northern Muslims. Several local newspapers reported between 30 and 35 dead. Thousands of Muslims with origins in the north fled to the military barracks in the city.
Christian mobs attacked Muslims and their businesses in Onitsha Tuesday in reprisal against violence in Maiduguri and Bauchi, which like most of northern Nigeria, are dominated by Muslims. Onitsha, like most of the south, is dominated by Christians.
"There are reports that some of the northerners attacked a primary school near the barracks this morning and killed some children," said Achor, who works with a marketing firm.
"Schools have quickly closed and thousands of people carrying machetes, some with guns, are rushing toward the military barracks. It could be bloody," he said.
Chris Ngige, the region's governor, said in a broadcast on television on Tuesday night he had ordered police reinforcements for the mainly trading city and declared a dusk-to-dawn curfew. The governor's spokesman Fred Chukwulobe confirmed "some people were killed" in Tuesday's attacks on northern Muslims but said he had no definite figures.
"More than 30 northerners were killed at the Bridgehead Market alone," said Chinyere Osigwe, a trader at the market who witnessed the violence.
Nigerian police spokesman Haz Iwendi said police reinforcements deployed in Onitsha following Tuesday's violence, adding that he has received no reports of fresh violence on Wednesday.
Iwendi, who spoke by telephone from the capital Abuja, confirmed there were deaths during previous day's violence in Onitsha and Bauchi but said authorities were still investigating
"We want to distinguish between bodies actually counted and people who may merely be missing," he said.
Bauchi Governor Adamu Muazu said on local television on Tuesday night the violence was fueled by allegations a Christian school teacher had desecrated the Quran. He said the allegations proved unfounded.
Powerful Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola said in a statement Tuesday that it was disturbing that cartoons published in Denmark "could elicit such an unfortunate reaction in Nigeria" and alleged it was part of a plot by unnamed people to Islamize Nigeria.
"It is no longer a hidden fact that a long-standing agenda to make this Nigeria an Islamic nation is being surreptitiously pursued," Akinola said. He said it may no longer be possible to restrain restive Christian youths.
Akinola could not be reached for comment on the outbreak of anti-Muslim violence in Onitsha.
The cartoons, which first appeared in a Danish newspaper in September, have set off sometimes violent protests around the world. One caricature shows Muhammad wearing a bomb-shaped turban with an ignited fuse.
Islam widely holds that representations of Muhammad are banned for fear they could lead to idolatry.
Other newspapers, mostly in Europe, have reprinted the pictures, asserting their news value and the right to freedom of expression.