January 8, 2011 / 2:49 PM / 9 years ago

Protest in central Nigerian city after Muslims killed

* Region lies between Muslim north and Christian south

* Seen as flashpoint ahead of elections

* Hundreds killed in clashes last year

By Shuaibu Mohammed

JOS, Nigeria, Jan 8 (Reuters) - Nigerian soldiers fired into the air to disperse youths burning tyres in the central city of Jos on Saturday in protest at the reported killing of eight Muslims in a nearby village, residents said.

The Muslims were on their way to a wedding when they were attacked late on Friday after their bus got lost in a predominantly Christian village which was at the centre of ethnic and religious clashes last year, witnesses said.

“Since my team couldn’t find the eight people, we’ve come to the conclusion they were killed, knowing the circumstances,” Plateau state police commissioner Abdulrahman Akano said.

“The occupants inside the vehicle were all Muslims dressed in Muslim attire,” he said.

Muslim youths set up burning barricades in parts of the Kwararasa neighbourhood of Jos when news of the attack on the bus spread, but a military taskforce which has been policing the city since last year’s unrest was able to disperse them.

Plateau state, of which Jos is the capital, lies in Nigeria’s “Middle Belt” where the mostly Muslim north meets the largely Christian south. The region is seen as a potential flashpoint ahead of nationwide elections in April.

Hundreds of people died in clashes between Muslim and Christian mobs in the region early last year and there have been frequent outbreaks of violence since then. Dogo Nahawa was one of the villages that bore the heaviest casualties.

The tension is rooted in decades of resentment between indigenous groups, mostly Christian or animist, who are vying for control of fertile farmlands and for economic and political power with migrants and settlers from the north.

President Goodluck Jonathan, a southerner, faces a tough election battle with former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, a northerner, and some analysts fear the national debate could become polarised around north-south rivalries.

Jonathan’s candidacy is controversial because of an agreement in the ruling party that power should rotate between the north and the south every two terms.

Jonathan inherited the presidency after his predecessor, northerner Umaru Yar’Adua, died last year during his first term and some in the ruling party say only a northerner can serve what should have been Yar’Adua’s second term.

Nigeria has been shaken by violence in recent weeks, including a New Year's eve bomb blast near an army barracks in Abuja a week after a series of blasts and subsequent clashes killed 80 in Jos. (For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: af.reuters.com/ ) (Writing by Nick Tattersall; editing by Myra MacDonald)

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