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Beauty queens flee as toll rises

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Miss World pageant in Nigeria rocked by controversy from start to finish. CNN's Jeff Koinange reports
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LONDON, England -- Eighty Miss World contestants have arrived in Britain as the death toll in religious rioting in Nigeria rose from the 100 of original reports to at least 175.

The fighting, which started on Wednesday and continued until late Saturday in the northern city of Kaduna, was touched off by a newspaper article about the Miss World pageant. Organisers decided on Friday to move the contest from the Nigerian capital Abuja to London.

"The papers are reporting 200 dead, but our estimate would be slightly less than that. We are talking of about 175," Emmanuel Ijewere, president of the Nigerian Red Cross, told Reuters.

About 12,000 people have so far been made homeless and the number of injured in hospital is between 1,100 and 1,200, he said.

At least 22 churches and 8 mosques were destroyed in the rampage, Shehu Sani of the Kaduna-based Civil Rights Congress told AP. Ten hotels were also badly damaged, said Sani, whose group estimated that "well over 200 people" had been killed.

By Sunday morning, a tense calm was reported in Kaduna as the relieved contestants arrived at Gatwick Airport, London, on a chartered Cameroons Airlines Boeing 747.

Organisers said they hoped to put the "ugly incident" behind them by ensuring that when the contest was held on December 7 it would bear all the hallmarks of everything Nigerian.

"All we want to do now is to give Miss World 2002 the publicity it deserves," a spokeswoman told the UK's Press Association.

"I feel very well. I'm happy to be back in London," said Miss France Caroline Chamorand as she pushed her baggage trolley past waiting photographers.

"I am happy to be home, excited," said Miss England, 22-year-old Daniella Luan. "Obviously it's been quite daunting but I'm just happy to be home, looking forward to seeing my family."

But she said her information about events in Nigeria had come from CNN reports as she was kept in her hotel for security reasons.

Before boarding her plane Miss Australia, Nicole Gazal, said most Nigerians supported the event. "I feel sorry for the Nigerian people," she told CNN.

"What I have seen the people really loved us staying in Nigeria. I think it is a shame a small number of people could could cause such havoc ... and push the pageant away."

Several contestants hugged policewomen as they left a luxury hotel in the capital Abuja, where they had stayed under heavy guard during the violence between Christians and Muslims.

The violence was sparked by an article published last week in national newspaper ThisDay, which backed the contest. It said that had the Prophet Mohammed been alive he would have wanted to marry one of the beauty queens.

The article had been seen as insulting to Muslims, particularly as it was published during the holy month of Ramadan.

Despite front-page apologies by the paper early in the week, Muslims rioted. Christians then retaliated against Muslims. The newspaper's offices in Kaduna were burned down and there were reports of churches and mosques being torched.

The paper said on Saturday its editor had been arrested on Friday and had not been seen since. On Sunday it was revealed that the journalist who wrote the article had resigned.

A "further letter of apology" posted Sunday on the Web site of the newspaper ThisDay identified style reporter Isioma Daniel as the "writer of the offensive article."

"She is pleading forgiveness. She has also offered her resignation for inadvertently causing so much pain to the nation and the newspaper.

"She says she had only recently returned to the county and did not fully understand the complexity and sensitivity of the Nigerian society. We find her action inexcusable and therefore have accepted her resignation."

The letter said Daniel "had only just joined ThisDay a few months back after a short journalism career in the UK."

The holding of the contest in a country where 50 percent of the population are Muslim and there has been pressure to introduce Sharia area in some northern districts had already caused controversy.

At least five contestants failed to show up in Nigeria for the contest. Four said they were boycotting because of sentences passed by Nigerian Islamic courts sentencing Muslim women to death by stoning for having sex outside marriage.

The Miss World contest, now in its 53rd year, is watched on television by more than two billion viewers worldwide, according to the pageant's Web site.

The current Miss World is Agbani Darego, of Nigeria -- it was her triumph last year that led to the country's decision to host the contest.

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