JOS, Nigeria (Reuters) - Youths dragged people from their cars and murdered them at illegal roadblocks in central Nigeria over the weekend, while rioters burnt fuel stations and homes in the latest clashes between Christian and Muslim gangs.
Youths from the mostly Christian Berom ethnic group set up the roadblocks on Saturday at Gada Biu, on the edge of the city of Jos, stopping vehicles and pulling out people they believed to be Muslims, witnesses said.
One witness, who asked not to be named, said he had counted 15 bodies, although the security forces could not confirm this.
The latest burst of violence in Plateau state, where an estimated 200 people have been killed in ethnic and religious clashes over the past month, was triggered when Muslim youths attended a burial ceremony near a Christian village on Friday.
Soldiers opened fire to try to quell fighting that ensued between rival mobs of students.
“The situation was aggravated when the soldiers attempted to repel them into the campus. In the process, many students sustained various degrees of injuries,” Plateau State Information Commissioner Gregory Yenlong said.
Reports on Saturday that some of the students had died in hospital triggered rioting, with youths setting up the roadblocks and protesters burning two fuel stations, a college and vehicles in the Farin Gada area of Jos, police said.
There have been almost daily clashes between Christian and Muslim mobs in villages around Jos, the capital of Plateau state, since a series of bombs were detonated during Christmas Eve celebrations a month ago, killing scores of people.
Police in neighboring Bauchi state said they were still recovering bodies after clashes between rival gangs triggered by a game of snooker last week and so far had a confirmed death toll of 19. A local government official put the toll at 30.
The tension in central Nigeria’s “Middle Belt” 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 Muslim north.
The unrest is largely contained in one region of Africa’s most populous nation and does not, on its own, risk derailing presidential, parliamentary and state elections in April.
But it is likely to escalate in the run-up to the polls and gives President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration another security challenge on top of attacks by a radical Islamic sect in the remote northeast and the threat of renewed violence in the oil-producing Niger Delta, on Nigeria’s southern coast.
Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton