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Land Feud Ignites Fighting in Nigeria

Security forces in Nigeria are battling to control three days of clashes in the central Plateau State, which have left at least 25 people dead. Hundreds of people have fled their homes.

More paramilitary police and soldiers were sent Friday to the central state of Plateau. This follows three days of fighting involving the Pan and Gomai people over land ownership in the town of Namu.

State authorities have ordered a nighttime curfew, and authorized security forces to shoot members of ethnic militias allegedly behind the violence, in a desperate bid to stop the fighting from spreading.

State-owned radio has reported at least 10 deaths but other reports suggest the death toll might be much higher. A resident of the state capital, Jos, who spoke to VOA Friday, described the clashes as very, very serious.

Tension has been rising in the area, with the creation of local administrative units by the state government.

Maxi Okwu, an Abuja-based civil rights activist, says the latest clashes reflect the volatility of the region.

"Plateau seems to have been regularly in the news on this community strife, and if you know the composition of Plateau, it is like a place that has the highest concentration of nationalities and ethnic groups -- small, small communities that are very insular and very protective of their identity," he said. "Added to this, in the Plateau area, is the settler problem, where persons who are not indigenous to the area have become quite entrenched. So, the slightest provocation leads to bloodletting and tensions all over the place. So, Plateau is very, very volatile."

Nigeria has more than 300 ethnic groups, which often find themselves in violent disputes over control of land and resources.

Okwu says the desperate economic situation, particularly among rural Nigerians, is the trigger for the raging violence.

"Nigerians are on a short fuse," he added. "There is so much angst in the land, so much disenchantment, failure of delivery of democracy dividends. So, at the slightest provocation, people just explode."

In May 2004, President Olusegun Obasanjo declared a state of emergency in Plateau, following the death of hundreds of people in months of ethno-religious violence in a part of the state.

More than 10,000 people have died in violence since the end of brutal military rule in 1999. Some three million people have been left homeless.