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Nigerian Police Crack Down on Separatists 


Police in southern Nigeria have cracked down for a second day on ethnic-separatist militants, while a related treason trial was postponed in the capital, Abuja.

Truckloads of police armed with tear gas and rifles swept around the market city of Onitsha, dismantling barricades and dispersing groups of angry young men.

Most other residents stayed indoors, joining a two-day stay at home strike among ethnic Igbos protesting the jailing of separatist leader Ralph Uwazurike. The Onitsha market, usually one of the most bustling in West Africa, was eerily deserted.

Leaders of the banned Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra, known commonly as MASSOB, say several people have been killed in the protests across southeastern Nigeria, but police deny this.

But an analyst from the London-based group Global Insight, Olly Owen, says the tense police crackdown will only make the movement more popular.

"The whole political movement is built on an existing feeling of victimization and marginalization and so if people see that taking place it just reinforces the message that MASSOB is trying to spread," said Olly Owen. "So the fact that it's widely observed does not necessarily mean that it's at the forefront of peoples' mind, but if the government uses it as a reason or an excuse of further oppression then that is going to become a really popular cause."

Meanwhile, outside the federal high court in Abuja, dozens of Igbo militants sang freedom songs, after proceedings against their separatist hero on treason charges were postponed until mid-January.

One of them, Goodwin, had traveled from Onitsha and explained why more people are joining the separatist movement.

"They will lock up their shops, they stay at home so that they will show that they are feeling the pains and pangs of their leader being held in detention by the Nigerian government," said Goodwin.

One of the defense lawyers said he was furious Mr. Uwazurike and other separatist leaders facing charges will not be allowed free on bail, while the court adjourns for its year-end recess.

"This is not acceptable to us at all," he said. "We are saying today it is a plot by the Nigerian state to keep them ad infinitum. It is politically motivated because we are saying there are so many imbalances to the Nigerian system. There are so many injustices to the Nigerian system and we should make no mistake about it at all. It's a political trial and I urge every member of Biafra to raise their voices and fight against injustices. We cannot keep quiet."

The separatist group wants to resurrect the short-lived Republic of Biafra in Nigeria's Igbo-dominated region.

The first attempt in 1967 failed after a three-year civil war in which over one million people died, most of them ethnic Igbos, who starved in displacement camps.

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