Curfew imposed in oil town following clashes

The authorities in Delta State, southern Nigeria, imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew on Monday in the oil town of Warri to curb three days of ethnic clashes in which more than 20 people were said to have died.

"The curfew will start from 7 pm to 6 am every day until further notice," Abel Oshevire, spokesman for the Delta State government, said in a statement.

Warri residents said heavily armed soldiers and police patrolled the streets of the worst hit section of the town, where more than 50 houses were razed by rival gangs from the Urhobo and Itshekiri ethnic groups. "My children didn't go to school today as most schools in the town are shut down, the streets are deserted and people are staying indoors," Frank Olise, a Warri resident, told IRIN on Monday.

The clashes started on Friday following a dispute between rival factions of the ruling People's Democratic Party over the selection of candidates for election to the state legislature. Troops and police deployed on the streets on Saturday briefly brought the violence under control, but there was another flare-up on Sunday, when more houses were burnt and people from rival ethnic groups were attacked.

A reporter for a national daily said he counted more than 20 people killed during the three days of clashes.

Lt Col Gar Dogo, commander of the army battalion based in Warri, told reporters on Monday that the rival groups were armed with sophisticated weapons, but that his men had finally taken firm control of the situation.

Hundreds of people were killed between 1997 and 1999 in violence between Urhobos, Itshekiris and Ijaws, the town's three main ethnic groups. These disputes centred over ownership of territory, a basis for claims to rents and amenities provided by oil transnationals who use Warri as a base for operations in the western Niger Delta.

The latest clashes have added to fears that ethnic and political violence could mar Nigeria's first general elections since the return to civilian rule in 1999. The polls, which include legislative election, are to be held in April-May.