JOS, Nigeria – Soldiers opened fire Friday to drive away young Muslims in central Nigeria protesting a film critical of the Prophet Muhammad, witnesses and authorities said, as demonstrators elsewhere in the county's Muslim north burned a U.S. flag.
The demonstrations in Jos, a city where hundreds have been killed in religious and ethnic violence, began after Friday prayers, witnesses said. Soldiers in the city, who have been on guard there since violence in 2010, followed after the youths, witnesses said.
The youths, some wearing white shirts that read "To Hell With America, To Hell With Israel," chanted slogans and called for the arrest of the makers of the film that has sparked protests across the Middle East and North Africa.
As the youths grew angry, soldiers fired assault rifles into the air to drive them away, said Capt. Mustapha Salisu, a spokesman for the military command in Jos. The soldiers dispersed the youths as demonstrations have been largely banned in the city since the violence, said Salisu.
It was not clear whether anyone was injured in the gunfire or the melee.
Jos, in Nigeria's fertile middle belt, straddles the country's predominantly Muslim north and Christian south. Jos and the surrounding Plateau state have been torn apart in recent years by violence pitting its different ethnic groups and major religions against each other. While divided by religion, politics and economics often fuel the fighting. In 2010, at least 1,000 people were killed in violence in Jos and surrounding regions, Human Rights Watch has said.
Meanwhile, protesters also entered the streets in Sokoto, a city in Nigeria's northwest that is nation's the spiritual home for Islam. Several demonstrations saw hundreds on the street, as protesters burned a U.S. flag.
"Time has come when the world should respect Islam as religion, because Muslims respect other people's religion," protester Abubakar Ahmed Rijia said.
Another protester, Nai'u Muhammed, said he believed people were deliberately trying to instigate Muslims into violence through criticizing the Prophet Muhammad.
"Islam is a religion of peace, but we cannot tolerate somebody abusing it," Muhammed said.
The protests in Nigeria and elsewhere in the world focused on a movie, called "Innocence of Muslims," which ridicules the Prophet Muhammad by portraying him as a fraud, a womanizer and a child molester. Muslims find it offensive to depict Muhammad in any fashion, much less in an insulting way.
In Nigeria, where the two faiths live and work together, as well as intermarry, there wasn't immediate, overwhelming outrage like what swept other nations. However, the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria's capital, Abuja, and the U.S. Consulate in Lagos closed early Friday. Nigeria's top police official also ordered increased security at foreign embassies in the country.
Nigeria also faces ever-increasing violent attacks from a radical Islamist sect known as Boko Haram, which is blamed for killing more than 670 people this year alone, according to a count by The Associated Press.
In Maiduguri, the sect's spiritual home, the streets were quiet Friday. Abubakar Mustapha, an imam and head of the local university's Islamic Studies department, called on Muslims to be restrained in their actions, no matter how angry they may feel over the film.
"How can we earn the respect of others when we as Muslims kill ourselves, when we do things that smear the name of our religion?" Mustapha asked while holding prayers Friday. "We have to go back to the basic and hold firm unto our religion with love and true devotion so that others will respect our religion and our prophet."
Associated Press writers Murtala Faruk in Sokoto, Nigeria; Haruna Umar in Maiduguri, Nigeria; and Jon Gambrell in Lagos, Nigeria, contributed to this report.