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Nigeria death toll tops 165 - ICRC

GENEVA, Switzerland -- At least 165 people have been killed in four days of religious fighting in the central Nigerian central city of Jos, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

The fighting between Christians and Muslims began on Friday, and has left a trail of devastation through the city.

The government of Nigeria's Plateau State, of which Jos is the capital, on Sunday put the death toll at 80, with a further 500 injured.

The ICRC, however, quoting the Nigerian Red Cross, said on Tuesday that the figure was at least twice that total, with as many as1,000 injured.

ICRC spokeswoman Antonella Notari said the figure could go much higher.

"The bodies of 165 people who died were brought to various Jos hospitals," Notari told Reuters on Tuesday. "This is coming from the Nigerian Red Cross, figures they gave us on Monday afternoon. It was as much as they could see at the time."

Relief agencies, meanwhile, say they are dealing with an estimated refugee figure of 6,000.

Plateau is in the so-called Middle Belt region of Nigeria, and its inhabitants are mainly Christian or animist minority tribes living alongside a significant Muslim population.

Residents said sectarian tension had been building in the region for a month after the state governor named a Muslim to head the state's poverty alleviation programme.

The specific trigger for Friday's flare-up was, according to residents, a wrangle between Christians and Muslims after a Christian woman allegedly breached a barricade erected to control traffic around the central mosque area during Friday prayers.

Churches and mosques were set on fire on Friday. Christian vigilantes poured onto the streets the following day to guard churches after interpreting an all-night Muslim prayer call from mosques as a call for Jihad, or Islamic holy war.

Leaders from both the Christian and Muslim communities appealed for calm in state radio addresses.

The traditional leader of the city's predominantly Christian Berom tribe called on his people to restore Jos as the "home of peace and unity."

President Olusegun Obasanjo condemned the bloodletting.

"What sort of Christians and Muslims are those who when they clash, the first thing they do is to start burning down churches or mosques?" he asked during a regular radio broadcast.

Ivan Watson, of U.S. National Public Radio, told CNN that the government had acted quickly and had imposed a curfew, sealed the borders of the Plateau state to keep violence from spreading beyond Jos, and had sent police and the army into the area.

"You have to give credit to the government for acting quickly," he added.

Former military ruler Yakubu Gowon, who took power in a coup d'etat in 1966 and led Nigeria during its 1967-70 Biafra civil war, is carrying out mediated talks between the two communities.

Until now Jos has largely been spared the Muslim-Christian clashes which have broke out elsewhere in northern Nigeria.

Nigeria, which is made up of about 250 different ethnic groups, is split between an overwhelmingly Muslim north and a predominantly Christian south.

In February 2000, hundreds of people were killed in an explosion of sectarian violence in the northern city of Kaduna over plans to introduce strict Islamic sharia law there before soldiers stepped in to restore order.

Hundreds more died in a second bout of bloodletting three months later.

Multi-ethnic Nigeria has been plagued by religious and communal violence since independence from Britain in 1960. Tensions have risen since the 15-year military dictatorship ended in 1999.

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