Rioting broke out in trading town of Onitsha on Tuesday in retaliation for the deaths on Saturday of at least 15 Christians in the northern city of Maiduguri, where Muslims had protested over the controversial caricatures.
The lawless trading centre was still boiling with anger on Wednesday, when an AFP reporter found his way into the city from the Niger River bridge blocked by a cordon of soldiers holding back a crowd of armed Christian youths.
Scattered by the side of the road were the bloodied corpses of at least 19 people, beaten, slashed and in some cases burnt. Caps and Islamic prayer beads associated with the northern Hausa tribe lay scattered around the bodies.
Tony Iweka, a magazine editor who ran the gauntlet of the mob to escape Onitsha and made it to the bridge, told reporters that he had seen 15 more corpses lying in the streets of the city.
“Some of them had been beheaded, others had had their genitals removed. I saw one boy holding a severed head with blood dripping from it,” he said.
Afoma Clare Adigwe, the president of a women farmers’ empowerment group, said that her car had been attacked as she drove through the city and her driver lightly injured.
“I asked the boys why they were angry. They shouted: ‘They killed our boys in the north’,” she said.
Thousands take shelter
Army officers at the scene could not confirm a total death toll in the city, where control has not yet been restored, but said thousands of Muslims had taken shelter in barracks and police stations.
Meanwhile, thousands of Hausas had fled from Onitsha across the Niger River bridge to Asaba, across the border into Delta State, where police were providing them with protection and medical care.
Police Superintendent Moriki Abubakar told AFP that five Muslims had been killed in Asaba in a smaller copy-cat riot, but that otherwise the situation was more calm west of the river.
One refugee, 28-year-old tailor Musa Dayyabu, said that Onitsha’s Hausa minority had been attacked Tuesday by a mob, and their homes and businesses looted and burnt.
“There were very many killed, so many bodies were in the streets,” he said.
“The people you are seeing here, they came alone, with nothing, not one naira on them,” he said, pointing to a 5,000-strong group of refugees, many of them with serious injuries, sheltering in the grounds of an Asaba police station.
Nigeria’s mainly Christian state of Anambra has imposed a curfew in Onitsha in an attempt to contain the riots, a government spokesman said.
He said police reinforcements had been sent to Onitsha and its environs to prevent further violence.
In recent weeks, Muslims around the world have been protesting against the publication, mainly in European newspapers, of a set of 12 drawings lampooning Islam’s holiest figure, but the Nigerian protests been the bloodiest yet.
Nigeria’s 130-million-strong population is divided roughly equally between Muslims and Christians of a variety of sects and denominations.
While northern Nigeria is overwhelmingly Muslim and the south largely Christian, there are large minority populations in both regions and sectarian rioting is relatively common and extremely bloody.