ONITSHA, Nigeria – Christians in this southern Nigerian city burned Muslim corpses and defaced wrecked mosques Thursday, showing little repentance after days of sectarian violence that has killed more than 120 people across the country.
Onitsha has borne the brunt, with at least 80 of the deaths. The violence followed weekend protests over the publication of cartoons of Muhammad, the Islamic prophet.
"We don't want these mosques here anymore. These people are causing all the problems all over the world because they don't fear God," said 34-year Ifeanyi Ese, standing amid the concrete rubble of an Onitsha mosque.
With a crowd gathered, Ese angrily scrawled "Mohammed is a man, but Jesus is from above" on a shattered mosque wall with a burned stick.
Thousands of Nigerians have died in sectarian strife since 2000, when mostly Muslim northern states began implementing Islamic Shariah law in late 1999. Nigeria's 130 million people are split between the two faiths, with Christians a majority in the south.
The latest violence was touched off Saturday in the northern city of Maiduguri, when Muslim protests against cartoons caricaturing the Prophet Muhammad. The cartoons, which first appeared in a Danish newspaper in September, have set off sometimes violent protests around the world.
The Maiduguri protests turned violent, and 18 people, most of them Christian, were killed.
Twenty-five more died in similar violence in the northern city of Bauchi, sparking reprisals in Onitsha.
"The Muslims started it when they attacked the Christians due to the cartoon of Muhammad in Denmark. If they cartooned their god, well, they must endure it and not fight," said Christian Ike, a 35-year old motorcycle taxi driver. "We want to be one Nigeria."
Emeka Umeh, who heads leading human rights group Civil Liberties Organization in Anambra state, said at least 80 people were killed in Onitsha — 60 Tuesday and 20 Wednesday.
One entire Muslim district — an area of about 100 homes — was burned to the ground. Crumpled corrugated tin roofs lay on top of the remains of smoldering houses.
At least nine bodies, all charred, lay in dirt streets as passers-by hurried past, holding cloths to their noses against the stench. Three other bodies burned on a pyre of flaming tires.
About 5,000 Muslims fled the city and took refuge across the Niger River in the neighboring town of Asaba. Several hundred of them sat beneath trees at a police barracks there, asking for help to travel northward as babies wailed.
Adam Mohamed, a 40-year-old Muslim motorcycle mechanic, said mobs attacked and robbed Muslims as they fled across a bridge connecting the two cities.
"Some were killed. Others were thrown from the bridge into the water," Mohamed said. "These people attacked us, burnt our mosques and killed our people. But by God's grace, I escaped."
Most seemed resigned to their fate.
"The prophet told us to accept what happens to us because it is our destiny," said Abdul Salaam Danbuzu, a 26-year-old sheep herder from neighboring Niger. "We're a small community and now we must all leave. All we can do is run."
Trucks that usually carry fruit and other goods to market were packed with Muslims heading north. It wasn't known how many Muslims lived in Onitsha.
Gov. Chris Ngige extended a curfew imposed on Onitsha to the nearby towns of Nnewi and Awka, the state capital, after Muslim northerners had been attacked and killed in those places Wednesday, the local government radio station reported.
Deaths have also been reported by residents in violence the same day against Muslims in Enugu, a mainly Christian and ethnic Igbo-dominated city, some 60 miles north of Onitsha.
A spokeswoman for the Nigerian Red Cross, Umo Okon, said there were 925 victims of violence in Onitsha over the two days, including deaths, injuries and people displaced from their homes. She did not have an exact breakdown.
The latest outbreak of fighting is the worst to hit Nigeria since 2004, when Muslim-Christian skirmishes in northern Nigeria's Plateau and Kano states killed more than 700 people.
The cartoons that reignited Muslim-Christian tension in Nigeria were the object of protests around the world. One caricature shows Muhammad wearing a bomb-shaped turban with an ignited fuse.