Calm returns to Nigerian city after deadly clashes

JOS, Nigeria (AP) -- Troops on foot and in armored personnel carriers appeared Sunday to have quelled two days of violence that left hundreds dead in a central Nigerian city.

Fearful residents who had been trapped in their homes ventured out in search of water as many of the dead were buried.

Military units moving into the city of Jos strengthened roadblocks. Streets were mostly empty. Police said they had arrested hundreds of people since the clashes flared early Friday following a disputed local election.

By late Saturday, at least 300 bodies had been brought to the city's main mosque for prayers before a quick burial, its imam said. The final death toll could be much higher, since many Christians are also presumed to have died when the political violence quickly took a sectarian turn. The city morgue was not accessible.

At the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI included Nigerian victims in his prayers and denounced the violence in Jos, calling on the world to express "horror and disapproval" at the senseless violence.

The clashes are the worst in the West African nation since 2004, when as many as 700 people died in Plateau State during Christian-Muslim clashes.

Hundreds of women and children carrying plastic jerrycans searched the streets for functioning water taps. Thousands of people could be seen cowering in schools and police and army barracks. A mass burial of 238 bodies took place in the early morning, witnesses said.

Jos, the capital of Plateau State, has a history of community violence that has made elections difficult to organize. Rioting in September 2001 killed more than 1,000 people.

The city is situated in Nigeria's "middle belt," where dozens of ethnic groups mingle in a band of fertile and hotly contested land separating the Muslim north from the predominantly Christian south. Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa; it straddles a fault line between Islam and Christianity that crosses the continent from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic.

Authorities imposed an around-the-clock curfew in the hardest-hit areas of Jos, where traditionally pastoralist Hausa Muslims live in close quarters with Christians from other ethnic groups.

The fighting began as clashes between supporters of the region's two main political parties following the first local election in Jos in more than a decade. The violence expanded along ethnic and religious lines.

Angry mobs gathered Thursday in Jos after electoral workers failed to post results in ballot collation centers, prompting onlookers to assume the vote was the latest in a series of fraudulent Nigerian elections.

Riots flared Friday morning. Local ethnic and religious leaders made radio appeals for calm on Saturday, and streets were mostly empty by early afternoon. Troops were ordered to shoot rioters on sight.

The violence has handed one of the greatest-yet challenges to the administration of President Umaru Yar'Adua, who came to power in a 2007 vote that international observers dismissed as not credible.

Few Nigerian elections have been deemed fair since independence from Britain in 1960, and military takeovers have periodically interrupted civilian rule.

More than 10,000 Nigerians have died in sectarian violence since civilian leaders took over from a military junta in 1999. Political strife over local issues is common in Nigeria, where government offices control massive budgets stemming from the country's oil industry.

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Associated Press Writer Bashir Adigun in Abuja, Nigeria, contributed to this report.

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