Nigeria Police Arrest 300 People over Sectarian Clashes

Police from a central state in Nigeria have arrested more than 300 people suspected of being involved in a massive inter-religious conflict earlier this month that left nearly 500 people dead.

Plateau state police spokesman Mohammed Lerama told Agence France-Presse on Monday that 313 people have been arrested, but did not give further details on the charges they faced. Those arrested were moved to Nigeria's capital Abuja.

Less than two weeks ago, a clash between the Muslim and Christian community in and about Jos city, Plateau state, resulted in an estimated 492 deaths. A Christian human rights group and the Plateau state police commissioner had said the violence was sparked by an unprovoked attack on worshippers of St. Michael's Church.

Recent media reports indicate that the violence was fueled by hundreds of inflammatory text messages circulated to residents of Jos and surrounding villages. The messages warned Christians to not buy food from Muslims because they were poisoned, religious leaders told BBC. And Muslims were informed by text messages that the local government ordered their water supply to be cut off to kill them.

"War, war, war. Stand up…and defend yourselves. Kill before they kill you. Slaughter before they slaughter you. Dump them in a pit before they dump you," read one text message, according to AFP.

Police say they are trying to trace the source of the messages.

Despite the hundreds of people that were arrested, some are still concerned that justice will not take place given the government's previous handling of sectarian violence.

A Plateau state government official, who requested to be anonymous because he was not authorized to speak on behalf of state authorities, expressed concern to AFP that suspects taken to Abuja will not be prosecuted. In the past, suspects' files have simply disappeared.

Jos has a well-known history of conflict between the Muslim and Christian communities.

In November 2008, major sectarian violence between Muslims and Christians broke out in the city resulting in the deaths of more than 300 people. The 2008 conflict was the worst sectarian violence in Nigeria since 2004, when some 700 people were killed and over 100 churches, destroyed. And in September 2001, a Muslim-Christian clash resulted in more than 1,000 deaths in Jos.

The central city lies between Nigeria's mainly Muslim north and predominantly Christian south. Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, is about evenly split between Muslims in the north and Christians in the south with minorities of both religions living where the other faith is dominant. Since democracy was restored in 1999, there have been at least 15,000 deaths due to religious, communal or political violence, according to BBC.

Though the clashes have generally been described as sectarian violence, poverty or access to resources is reportedly the root cause of the conflict as well as a political struggle more than religion.