YELWA, Nigeria – Injured, hungry and grieving Muslims abandoned their central Nigerian town Friday amid stalled efforts to mediate a conflict that has left an estimated 500 dead in attacks by fighters of a predominantly Christian tribe.
"They came from God, they go back to God," 49-year-old Jumai Isa said of her husband and five children, shot and hacked to death by men wearing charcoal body paint and bandanas. "Now I want to go away."
A Red Cross team visiting Yelwa (search) estimated Thursday that there were "500 to 600 killed" by Christian Tarok-speakers during attacks Sunday and Tuesday, team leader Umar Abdu Mairiga said.
He cited witness reports and an inspection of a mass grave site that Hausa-speaking Muslim residents said contained at least 280 bodies.
The Christian Tarok farmers and predominantly Muslim Hausa (search) traders and cattle herdsmen have launched back-and-forth raids since more than 1,000 people were killed in an outbreak of religious violence in the previously peaceful city of Jos (search) in September 2001.
Religious, ethnic and political enmities have fueled outbreaks of communal bloodshed that have left more than 10,000 dead since President Olusegun Obasanjo's (search) 1999 election ended 15 years of repressive military rule in Africa's most populous nation.
The assailants in this week's attacks used cans of kerosene to burn hundreds, possibly thousands of homes and vehicles and several mosques in Yelwa, 210 miles east of the capital of Abuja.
One hundred people were reported missing, many of them women and children who allegedly were abducted by the fighters, Mairiga said.
Some Christians also reportedly were killed. Nanman Anthony, a 35-year-old Tarok farmer, said Hausa fighters cut him on the back and head with machetes, then left him for dead. Another Tarok man carried him to nearby Shendam, a Christian community.
Nigerian Red Cross head Emmanuel Ijewere said Friday the organization was unable to determine a firm death toll and could only verify that 7,500 residents had been evacuated from Yelwa and surrounding villages.
Police, who traditionally play down casualties to stem retaliatory attacks, said just 80 were confirmed killed.
In February, Muslim militants were blamed for killing nearly 50 people in Yelwa, including many victims slain while they were seeking refuge in a church.
An emergency mediation committee intended to bring together rival leaders suffered a setback after Obasanjo named a prominent Muslim religious leader Thursday to head the panel, drawing condemnation from Christians who constitute the majority in the central state of Plateau, where the attacks occurred.
"We are not quarreling with the panel, only the man who is heading it," said Samuel Salifu, leader of the region's Christian association.
Christian Tarok- and Berom-speaking politicians have accused Muslims of hiring ex-rebels from neighboring Chad to conduct deadly raids. Hausa-speaking Muslim leaders say their rivals obtained weapons and funding from former Nigerian military officers. Neither claim could be independently confirmed.
Since Monday, police and soldiers have escorted thousands of people evacuated from the state in trucks and vans. Many of those remaining behind said they also wanted to go.
Isa's husband Muhammed and five children — Musa, Adama, Garba, Adamu and Hauwa — were killed as she hid behind her house as attackers chanted "woman come out, we're going to kill you."
Kabiri Ibrahim, 37, was shot in the arm by men who also slaughtered his 65-year-old father with a machete. Ibrahim's wife and five children fled and he didn't know if they were alive.
"If they don't want us here we will go away," Ibrahim said. "I don't feel safe."
Some hoped peace could be restored. Mohammed Kabir Umar, a Muslim cleric, preached forgiveness to his followers on Friday.
"I call on them to forgive and forget ... By so doing, peace will return to us so that we will continue to live in harmony," he said.
In the heavily Muslim northern city of Kano (search), however, another radical cleric accused Christians of "systematically attacking Muslims."
"The blood of every Muslim is worth a thousand times more than that of pork-eating infidels," the Muslim cleric, Cheikh Bin Usman, said in a radio broadcast.