Automatic weapons fire breaks out in Nigerian town wracked by Christian-Muslim violenceBy Jon Gambrell, AP
Tuesday, March 9, 2010
Gunshots heard in violence-wracked Nigerian town
JOS, Nigeria — Automatic weapons fire punctuated by screams erupted after dark Tuesday in a Nigerian city located near villages where massacres just two days ago left more than 200 people dead.
Nerves remained on edge, despite a long-standing dusk-til-dawn curfew in Jos, the capital of Plateau state. When sustained gunfire rang out for about three minutes, apparently from several automatic rifles, people ran screaming through the streets.
More than 100 people, mostly women and children, sought shelter in a hotel where journalists and military commanders were staying. They wailed in terror as they heard gunshots coming one by one from outside. A ranking police officer in Jos said the shooting happened after people gathered in the street because of a suspicious truck in their neighborhood.
The officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to discuss the shooting with reporters, said soldiers opened fire to scare away the group.
However, human rights group say extrajudicial killings remain common in Nigeria — especially in situations of civil unrest.
Evarisitus Fuanbal, a former soldier who now works at Jos’ City Lodge Hotel, said the military officers staying at the hotel left Tuesday evening after receiving word of people assembling nearby.
Earlier Tuesday, the U.S. government and human rights activists called for Nigeria to investigate and prosecute those responsible for Sunday’s killings.
Acting President Goodluck Jonathan had promised that the fighting would stop after more than 300 people, mostly Muslims, were slain in January. Some described Sunday’s massacres, which targeted Christians, as revenge for what happened in January. Others said the bloodshed has ethnic roots, with Fulani cattlemen wanting to take over nearby land.
Human Rights Watch urged Jonathan to provide protection for villages surrounding Jos, a central Nigerian city that has become the epicenter of violence in the region.
Jonathan fired his national security adviser Monday following the weekend violence.
“After the January killings, the villages should have been properly protected,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said. “Clearly, previous efforts to tackle the underlying causes have been inadequate, and in the meantime the wounds have festered and grown deeper.”
Those who survived attacks Sunday in three mostly Christian villages said security forces never provided them any guards.
Human Rights Watch researcher Corinne Dufka said authorities must protect the communities, bring the perpetrators to justice and address the root causes of violence.
The U.S. Embassy in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, called on Nigeria’s federal government to seek justice “under the rule of law and in a transparent manner,” the embassy said.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called the violence “tragic.”
Plateau state Gov. Jonah Jang told reporters Tuesday he received a tip that villagers saw suspicious people with weapons several hours before the massacres. Jang, who leads the Christian-controlled state government, said the army ignored him when he called to warn them.
“I reported to the commander of the army and he told me that he was going to move some troops there,” Jang said. “Three hours or so later, I was woken by call that they have started burning the village and people were been hacked to death and I tried to locate the commanders. I couldn’t get any of them on the telephone.”
As night fell Tuesday, police and soldiers began massing on two neighborhoods in Jos — one near the city’s police college and the other along the road to the city’s airport, witnesses said. Both are mixed neighborhoods of Christians and Muslims.
Jonathan said security forces would lock down the borders of Plateau state to stop weapons and potential fighters from infiltrating the region. But people could pass through checkpoints without being searched. Some posts were unmanned, while police and soldiers at others merely watched cars pass by without stopping them.
The killings Sunday add to the tally of thousands who have already perished in Africa’s most populous country in the last decade due to religious and political frictions. Rioting in September 2001 killed more than 1,000 people. Muslim-Christian battles killed up to 700 people in 2004. And more than 300 residents died during a similar uprising in 2008.
Nigeria is almost evenly split between Muslims in the north and the predominantly Christian south. The recent bloodshed has been happening in central Nigeria, in Nigeria’s “middle belt,” where dozens of ethnic groups vie for control of fertile lands.
Associated Press Writers Ahmed Saka in Jos, Nigeria, and Bashir Adigun in Abuja, Nigeria, contributed to this report.
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