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Protests Over Cartoon are Peaceful in West Africa

Protests over the publication of satirical cartoons of the prophet Mohammed in Europe have spread to West Africa, but they have been peaceful.

Protests against the cartoons, which were first published in a Danish newspaper, have taken place over the last few days in Kano, northern Nigeria, and in Mali's capital, Bamako.

But both protests were brief, lightly attended and non-violent. Protesters in Lebanon and Syria attacked Danish and other European missions in recent days.

Nigerian civil rights activist Shehu Sani says a quick condemnation by an umbrella Christian group was crucial to keeping the peace in Nigeria.

"Since there is not much presence of Danish institutions, industries, and business concerns in Nigeria that are visible, I think a crisis like this could have a non-intending consequence of turning into inter-religious violence," he said. "But the quick intervention of Christian groups, by condemning the cartoons in Denmark, I think, has helped a lot."

Sani, who is writing a book about the history of religious violence in northern Nigeria, says fears are based on previous riots in Nigeria, which were caused by local newspapers publishing material widely seen as blasphemous.

"In the records, which I have, there were instances in which expression of views, interests and opinions have led to serious consequences of violence. That happened in 1987, in the northwestern part of Nigeria," he said. "It also happened in the year 2002. So, I think that there is that experience, and that there is a caution, and there also have to be lessons to be learned on issues like this."

Most West Africans are seeing the cartoons for the first time at Internet cafes, where they can be downloaded easily.

In Mali's capital, Bamako, a peaceful protest march took place Saturday. Organizers said they planned to hold more to condemn the cartoons, which they called an unnecessary insult to their religion.

One of the cartoons shows the prophet Mohammed wearing a headdress in the shape of a bomb. Islam bans depictions of the prophet.

Other commentators say the news about the cartoons and the subsequent Middle East violence has traveled slowly, and that many Muslim West Africans could still display anger.

But the uproar also comes at a time when many West Africans are totally consumed by the football African Cup of Nations, where three of the region's countries, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Senegal, have made it to the semi-finals. The sporting event has defused other tensions, including pending U.N. sanctions in war-divided Ivory Coast.