- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 12, 2004

KANO, Nigeria — Thousands of Christians fled their burning homes in this northern Nigerian city yesterday as Muslim gangs defied a huge security operation to carry out sectarian attacks in reprisal for a massacre by a Christian ethnic militia early this month.

Kano’s police chief, Commissioner Abdul Ganiyu Dawodu, told reporters that 30 persons had so far been killed and 40 hospitalized in two days of fighting, but Christian families fleeing outlying districts said that many more may have died and their bodies had not yet been recovered.

“We had no option but to give the order to our men to shoot anybody who tries to disturb the peace, especially when the life of an officer is in danger or the security of society is threatened,” Commissioner Dawodu said, conceding that a lack of vehicles had prevented his men from controlling the riot.

He did not say how many of the casualties were caused by police fire.

At Kano General Hospital, doctors were treating a steady stream of people with machete and gunshot wounds, including four men who friends said had been shot by police, two of them in the stomach and two in the legs.

Meanwhile, between 5,000 and 10,000 terrified refugees gathered near police headquarters seeking sanctuary from the mob.

Fighting first broke out Tuesday, when Muslim youths went on a rampage after a demonstration to denounce a May 2 attack by a Christian ethnic militia on the mainly Muslim market town of Yelwa, in central Nigeria. That attack left more than 200 dead.

Large numbers of police and troops were deployed late Tuesday to enforce a dusk-till-dawn curfew, and by yesterday morning they had secured control of the city center and were protecting Kano’s main Christian neighborhood.

But once the overnight clampdown was lifted, fighting spread to the suburbs, witnesses fleeing the scene told Agence France-Presse.

“Many people have been killed in Sharada, but we have not been able to bring out their bodies, because we had to save our own lives,” said foundry worker Joshua Adamu, 37, adding that his home had been burned down.

Nearby, Rosemary Ime, a middle-aged battery vendor, broke down in tears as neighbors arrived with news that her husband, four children and four other relatives were burned alive when her home was attacked overnight.

“My husband and his brother have been badly hurt, they have so many knife wounds in their backs. They have been taken to the hospital. We don’t know whether they are dead or alive,” wept Helen James, 40.

“All our neighborhood was totally burned. We have nothing left.”

Smoke could be seen rising from the outlying districts of Rijiyar Zakim, Sharada and Kofar Kabuga, but soldiers prevented reporters from approaching the scene. Refugees were seen fleeing the area in buses and police jeeps.

In the main central Christian district, Sabon Gari, shopkeepers gathered near their stores but did not open for business while they waited to see if the police operation would be enough to protect them from looters.

On May 2, a gang from the Tarok ethnic group attacked the mainly Muslim market town of Yelwa, in the Shendam local government area of central Nigeria’s Plateau State, 187 miles east of Abuja, Nigeria’s capital.

The central government estimated the death toll at between 200 and 300, but local officials and witnesses said more than 600 had died. The attack appears to have been an attempt to expel Muslims from the region.

Tuesday’s protest in Kano, the sprawling northern commercial center 250 miles north of Abuja, was called in solidarity with the Yelwa Muslims. Despite appeals for calm, rioting broke out shortly afterward.

President Olusegun Obasanjo held a crisis meeting with influential Muslim scholars in Abuja, asking them to calm the anger of their supporters.

Information Minister Chukwuemeka Chikelu said: “The federal government is very disturbed about what has happened in Kano and Plateau State, and the president is intervening strongly to make sure it doesn’t escalate.”

But there are signs that the anger is spreading to other parts of Nigeria’s Muslim north, a region of bush and semi-desert on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, inhabited by more than 40 million people.

Mu’azu Ahardawu, a radio reporter in the northern city of Bauchi, told Agence France-Presse that a security operation had begun after leaflets were found calling on Muslims to avenge the Yelwa killings and on Christians to leave the region.

Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, and its 130 million people are evenly divided between Christians and Muslims. More than 10,000 people have died in mob violence since the end of military rule in 1999.

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