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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 May, 2004, 10:54 GMT 11:54 UK
Eyewitness: Nigeria's 'town of death'
By Anna Borzello
BBC, Yelwa, central Nigeria

Felled trees, branches and piles of junk metal lie across the road to Yelwa.

Girl running past burning building
Muslims say the town was sealed off by Christian militias
They were placed there last week by armed men who wanted to stop security agencies coming into town and stopping the killings.

The closer we got to Yelwa, the more signs of destruction we saw.

Burned houses, and the twisted metal and shattered windows of cars, abandoned by the side of the road.

The police said it was too dangerous for us to go into Yelwa's centre, and made us leave their armed convoy and wait by a vandalised petrol station until they came back.

They drove off down the main street, through a milling crowd.

'Military uniforms'

But instead, people were desperate to talk to us.

Muslim men from the Hausa-Fulani ethnic group, immediately began to gather round to tell their story.

They said that the attackers - armed with sophisticated weapons - surrounded Yelwa on Sunday and launched a killing spree that lasted 24 hours.

Some of the militia - who came from four neighbouring Christian ethnic groups - were stripped to the waist and painted black with charcoal.

Others, the eyewitnesses said, wore military and police uniform.

The attackers went from house to house looking for people to kill, looting property and burnings building.

Three mosques in this predominantly Muslim town were destroyed.

'Mass grave'

It is still not clear how many people lost their lives, although it is likely to be far higher than the official toll of 67.

One man said 550 dead, another 600 - but some of those may be simply missing as many people fled during the attack.

People clearing up damaged mosque
Three mosques were burnt in the attack
The men agreed, however, that 250 people had been buried the day before in a mass grave.

I asked why the police thought that it wouldn't be safe for us to drive around the town.

The reason was immediately clear.

The people of Yelwa feel that the security forces and local government have let them down.

They say that on 20 April the police withdrew from the town - and didn't come back until the killing had stopped.

Earlier this week, when the local governor and state chief of police drove through Yelwa, men lined the street chanting at them, and the officials were too frightened to get out of the car.

Revenge killings

The police say, in their defence, that sometimes it makes sense to tactically withdraw - and that they weren't able to come in during the fighting because of all the roadblocks.

Army and police are now deployed in Yelwa.

And the president has set up a peace team to try and resolve the conflict - which is rooted in a dispute over access to land between the Christian ethnic groups and the Muslim Hausa-Fulani.

But it is clear that the threat of ethnic and religious killing in the region has not gone away.

There has been heightened tension in the region, since the start of the year, and revenge killings are common.

Earlier this year, Muslim Hausa-Fulani in Yelwa killed 49 Christians who had taken refuge in a church.

The BBC's Anna Borzello
"They felt that the police had abandoned them"

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