Angry mobs stabbed and set fire to bystanders Thursday in rioting that erupted after a newspaper suggested Islam's founding prophet would have approved of the Miss World beauty pageant. At least 50 people were killed and 200 injured.
The violent demonstrators in the northern city of Kaduna burned churches and rampaged through the streets until hundreds of soldiers were deployed to restore calm and enforce a dusk-to-dawn curfew.
"A lot of people died. We don't know yet exactly how many more than 50," said Emmanuel Ijewere, president of the Nigerian Red Cross.
Street demonstrations began Wednesday with the burning of an office of ThisDay newspaper in Kaduna after it published an article questioning Muslim groups that have condemned the Miss World pageant, to be held Dec. 7 in the Nigerian capital, Abuja.
Muslim groups say the pageant promotes sexual promiscuity and indecency.
"What would (the prophet) Mohammed think? In all honesty, he would probably have chosen a wife from among them (the contestants)," Isioma Daniel wrote in Saturday's article.
The newspaper ran a brief front-page apology Monday, followed by a more lengthy retraction Thursday, saying the offending passage had run by mistake.
Thursday, more than 50 people were stabbed, bludgeoned or burned to death and 200 were seriously injured, Ijewere said.
Shehu Sani of the Kaduna-based Civil Rights Congress said he watched a crowd stab one young man, then force a tire filled with gasoline around his neck and burn him alive.
Alsa Hassan, founder of another human rights group, Alsa Care, said he saw a commuter being dragged out of his car and beaten to death by protesters.
Schools and shops hurriedly closed as hordes of young men, shouting "Allahu Akhbar," or "God is great," ignited street barricades made of tires and garbage, sending plumes of black smoke rising above the city. Others chanted, "Down with beauty," and "Miss World is sin."
Hundreds of police and soldiers were deployed to restore calm. Riding in pickup trucks, they fired tear gas at protesters.
Previous riots in Kaduna, a largely Muslim city with a sizable Christian minority, have escalated into religious battles that killed hundreds since civilian government replaced military rule in 1999.
Islamic fundamentalist groups have for several months warned of protests against the Miss World pageant, prompting organizers to postpone the finale until after the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
Contestants from five countries _ Costa Rica, Denmark, Switzerland, South Africa and Panama _ are boycotting the event because Islamic courts in Nigeria have sentenced several unmarried women to death by stoning for conceiving babies outside wedlock. Nigeria's government insists none of the judgments will be carried out, although it has refused to intervene directly.
Miss World publicist Stella Din said pageant organizers hoped calm would quickly return.
"We are very, very sad that it has come to this _ even if there is a loss of one life, it makes us sad. We are appealing to all to please exercise restraint," Din said.