JOS, Nigeria â€“ Angry Muslim youths set a church filled with worshippers ablaze in northern Nigeria, starting a riot that killed at least 27 people and wounded more than 300 others in the latest religious violence in the region, officials said Monday.
About 5,000 people lost their homes as rioters also burned mosques and homes in Jos, a city that saw more than 300 residents killed during a similar uprising in 2008, said local Red Cross official Auwal Muhammad Madobi. He said he had no information about deaths. Police officials declined to offer a count of the dead.
Sani Mudi, a spokesman for the local imam, said 22 people died Sunday after rioters set fire to a Catholic church, starting a daylong wave of violence between Christians and Muslims. Five others died Monday from their wounds, and police and soldiers set up numerous road blocks throughout Jos.
An Associated Press reporter saw the bodies of 10 dead youths, marked with bullet holes and machete wounds, at a local hospital on Monday. On Sunday, witnesses told reporters they saw 10 bodies at a mosque in the city. It was unclear if the bodies in the hospital were the same ones seen in the mosque.
The rioting began Sunday, when the youths attacked a church, said Gregory Yenlong, a state government spokesman. Yenlong said he didn’t know why the young men set the blaze.
“That’s what’s being investigated,” he said.
Police arrested 35 people who they suspect took part in the rioting, Yenlong said. He said at least five of the men arrested were wearing fake Nigerian military uniforms. He also said a dusk-to-dawn curfew would remain in place on Jos for the coming days.
Musa Pam, secretary of a local Christian elders forum, issued a statement Monday claiming the Muslim youths picked Sunday to launch their attack because they knew Christians would be worshipping at church. He asked the police to bring the killers to justice, because Christians were being attacked without cause.
Kabiru Mohammed, a Muslim resident who lost his home in the 2008 violence, told reporters Monday that after he recently started to rebuild his house, local Christian youths surrounded it and demanded that he stop construction.
“They said the area now belongs to them,” Mohammed said.
The youths attacked, killing two laborers working on the home, Mohammed said.
Ahmed Garba, a Muslim lawyer, said he escaped being lynched by a group of Christian youths armed with bows and arrows, knives, stones and locally made firearms. He watched as they attacked and stabbed three people.
Traffic in the northern Nigerian city remained light on Monday, as the few cars traveling met multiple roadblocks and close searches by police and soldiers. Local police spokesman Mohammed Lerama said the site of the rioting remained sealed off, but that calm had returned to Jos.
“There’s an absolute peace,” Lerama said.
Jos sits in the heart of northern Nigeria, home to the nation’s Muslim population. Religious violence, largely based on local disputes rather than global conflicts, has struck Jos in the past. Rioting in September 2001 killed more than 1,000 people and Muslim-Christian battles killed up to 700 people in 2004.
Associated Press Writer Jon Gambrell contributed from Lagos, Nigeria.