African fights brew between army, tribes

Sunday, October 28, 2001

AGASHA, Nigeria -- Moses Mbaissa fled his home after an attack by fighters from a rival tribe. He took refuge in another town only to find more bloodshed. Soldiers were gunning down unarmed villagers.

A longtime conflict between ethnic Tivs and Jukuns has heated up in recent weeks, with tribal fighters hacking off the limbs of women and children and burning villages.

Last week, government soldiers sent to quiet the violence entered the fray, burning down at least seven mainly Tiv villages and shooting at least 150 civilians -- and probably twice as many.

At a camp in Agasha for some 2,500 displaced civilians set up in a school, Mbaissa, a 30-year-old farmer, told on Saturday how he and his family fled a Jukun attack on his home village of Dooshima nearly two weeks ago.

He arrived in the village of Zaki-Biam, just one day before soldiers arrived there Monday.

The soldiers gathered up Zaki-Biam residents, telling them to "stay quiet while we keep the peace." Then they started shooting and an unknown number were killed, Mbaissa said.

Witnesses have related similar grisly tales from several other villages, saying hundreds were killed -- many shot execution-style at point-blank range.

Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation, is riven with ethnic, religious and political divides that frequently flare into violence.

Fighting between Tivs and Jukuns -- mainly over farmland -- has raged intermittently for more than a decade. Fulanis entered the feud more recently, on the Jukun side. In the past few weeks, violence has intensified along the borders of the states of Benue, Taraba and Nassarawa, with each side burning villages of the other.

At the Agasha camp, 45-year-old William Ishor and his family curled up in stunned exhaustion in the shade of a mango tree, newly arrived Saturday after a seven-day trek fleeing Jukun fighters who attacked their village of Tala.

The Jukun attacked suddenly a week ago, burning down houses and screaming "Tivs out," said Ishor, whose family like many others in his village are Tiv.

Ishor fled through forests and farms, surviving on raw manioc and corn picked along the way. "We ran and walked. We slept wherever we happened to be when night found us," he said.

Along a pothole-pitted road from Benue's capital, Makurdi, all but two of a dozen villages have been completely burned down either by ethnic fighting or by soldiers.

Uniformed troops traveling in armored personnel carriers destroyed seven towns over three days starting Monday -- killing 130 people in just one village, state Gov. George Akume said Thursday. A federal lawmaker representing some of the destroyed villages said Friday that 300 were killed in all, including 150 in Gbeji.

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