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Saturday, June 17, 2006

At least 6 dead in clashes in southeast Nigeria

ONITSHA, Nigeria, June 17 (Reuters) - At least six people were killed in the southeast Nigerian city of Onitsha when a feud between a separatist group and a transport union degenerated into street battles, residents said on Saturday.

One witness said men armed with guns and machetes boarded a bus, forced out all the passengers and shot and beheaded one of them at the roadside.

"He was killed in my presence and his head was cut off," said Charles Mbara, an estate agent who was a passenger on the bus. The incident happened on Friday.

"On my way back in the evening I saw five burnt corpses at several points in Upper Iweka. ... We don't know who the killers were," he said.

The Red Cross has received no report of deaths, said an official in the commercial city Lagos.

There were pockets of violence on Saturday in some parts of the city, where members of a road transport union stopped and searched vehicles and demanded money from people at roadblocks, the Civil Liberties Organisation, a rights group, said.

Police have arrested 18 members of the banned Movement for the Actualisation of a Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) over the past two days in connection with fighting in Onitsha, area commander Matthew Uyanna said.

He said 6 policemen had been injured in clashes with suspected MASSOB activists, who had torched two police vehicles, one of them an armoured personnel carrier.

Uyanna had no details of killings. Nigerian police do not usually release death tolls after clashes.

MASSOB denied responsibility for the violence.

"We are not responsible for the killings. We are not a militant group," said Chidi Ajaegbu, a spokesman for the group.

MASSOB campaigns for the peaceful secession of southeastern Nigeria, a region dominated by the Ibo ethnic group. Hundreds of members have been arrested and the group's leader, Ralph Uwazurike, is in jail facing a treason trial.

The group says it is non-violent, though some of its members have been involved in fighting in the past.

Residents say a feud between MASSOB and the National Association of Road Transport Owners (NARTO) has been under way for months but has escalated over the past few days.

The NARTO has links to Chris Uba, a rich and powerful political kingmaker in Anambra state where Onitsha is located. Because of these ties, MASSOB suspects that NARTO members are being paid to attack and weaken the separatists.

It was not immediately possible to obtain a comment from the transport union.

Onitsha, a hectic, sprawling market city on the banks of the river Niger, is one of Nigeria's most violent cities. About 100 people were killed there in February in retaliatory attacks by Ibo on ethnic Hausa residents after dozens of Ibo were killed in riots in Hausa cities in the north.
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