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Tensions explode in Nigerian city

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JOS, Nigeria — Frightened Muslims and Christians huddled together for safety at a police training grounds in this northern Nigerian city Sunday after three days of bloodletting between their two communities left smoke rising into the sky and charred corpses in the streets.

Blackened homes and hundreds upon hundreds of burned cars, some still smoldering, lined the road into the hilltop city of Jos, a peaceful community of 4 million people until tensions between Muslims and Christians exploded Friday evening after Muslim prayers.

Heavy police patrols and troops called out by President Olusegun Obasanjo were taking control Sunday. Police sealed the borders of Plateau state to keep violence from spreading beyond Jos, the capital.

The death toll in Jos was unknown, although residents said dozens were dying. Troops quickly began picking up bodies.

Jos, a one-time hill resort of Nigeria's former British rulers, exploded into violence over what some residents said was a simple slight — a Christian woman trying to cross a street where Muslim men were gathered in Friday prayer.

The Associated Press counted nine bodies, many blackened, one with a burned tire still around its neck, on one road into town.

"There is still fighting, but we hope with God's grace by tomorrow we can stop it," O.A. Adetut, a police trainee, said in Jos.

Security forces manned roadblocks every few hundred feet and intercepted marauding, rival gangs of Christians and Muslims.

"Don't you understand? They are killing our people!" implored one of about 30 Muslims stopped by police as they drove through the streets in an open-bed truck.

The men, made to kneel in a culvert by a police school, pleaded for merciful treatment by authorities. Arms taken from them — steak knives, pick axes, swords and clubs bristling with nails — lay nearby.

On the grounds of the police school, 750 Muslims and Christians — men, women and children — crowded together, clutching small bags and other goods grabbed in hurried flight.

Prized by missionaries — today, many of them American — for its good weather, the predominantly Christian city until now largely had been spared the Muslim-Christian clashes that broke out elsewhere in northern Nigeria last year.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Susan Pittman said the United States had not issued any public warning to Americans in Jos. U.S. authorities were closely monitoring the situation, she said.

Nigeria, a nation of 120 million people and 250 ethnic groups, is split into an overwhelmingly Muslim north and a predominantly Christian south. Thousands have died in vicious Muslim-Christian clashes since several northern states introduced Sharia, or Islamic law. Last year, 2,000 people died in Kaduna state alone.

Jos, most of whose government leaders are Christians, had ruled out implementing Sharia. Religious tensions had been rising recently following a Muslim's appointment as chairman of a state poverty-alleviation committee.

Thick smoke rose from outlying villages Sunday evening. Fighting was said to have spread to the city's outskirts.

Some Christians and Muslims banded together to stop the fighting.

Tukur Mohammed, who is Muslim, described how residents of his neighborhood, Abattoir Giring I, had spontaneously formed a Muslim-Christian association in a successful bid to keep out violence.

Mohammed said he saw a man being shot by police just a few blocks away during unrest on Saturday. Christian and Muslim men together carried the body off the street.

Acting state Gov. Michael Bomang sent out what was described as an "S.O.S." to dozens of cities and towns across Plateau state, telling them to act to safeguard lives within their own communities.

In Jos on Sunday, police repelled a Muslim gang that attacked some of the few Christians who ventured out for church services.

Frightened residents described determined killers keeping up hit-and-run attacks — singling out victims, then closing in with guns and machetes when armed patrols were out of sight.