Nigeria's 'home of unity' erupts

Religious and community leaders appealed for calm in the central Nigerian city of Jos yesterday amid efforts to stem four days of Christian-Muslim violence that has killed at least 70 people.

After a night of sporadic shooting as troops struggled to enforce a curfew, soldiers battled to stop people from gathering in large numbers, witnesses said.

Soldiers fired warning shots to stop a crowd of Muslim youths trying to regroup near the central mosque where riots flared Friday.

The violence was touched off by what some residents said was a simple slight - a Christian woman trying to cross a street where Muslim men were gathered in prayer.

Officials confirmed at least 70 reported deaths, but residents put the toll in the hundreds. Blackened homes and smoldering, burned cars lined the road Sunday.

The traditional leader of the city's predominantly Christian Berom tribe called on his people to restore Jos - a city of 4 million and a base for many American missionaries - as the "home of peace and unity."

Nigeria, a nation of 120 million people and 250 ethnic groups, is split into an overwhelmingly Muslim north and a predominantly Christian south.

Until now, Jos had largely been spared the Muslim-Christian clashes that broke out last year. Thousands have died since several northern states introduced sharia, or Islamic holy law.

Religious tensions in Jos had been rising following the appointment of a Muslim as chairman of a state poverty-alleviation committee.

Heavy police patrols and troops called out by President Olusegun Obasanjo were taking control Sunday, intercepting rival gangs of Christians and Muslims.

"Don't you understand? They are killing our people!" implored one man, one of about 30 Muslims stopped as they drove in an open-bed truck. Arms taken from them - steak knives, pick axes, swords, and clubs bristling with nails - lay piled nearby.

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