At least 15 people killed in northern Nigeria Muslim protests over prophet cartoons

Nigerian Muslims protesting caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad attacked Christians and burned churches in northeastern Nigeria, killing at least 15 people Saturday, police and residents said.

It was the first major protest to erupt over the issue in Africa's most populous nation.

Rioters burned 15 Christian churches in Maiduguri before troops and police reinforcements restored order, Nigerian police spokesman Haz Iwendi said. Security forces arrested dozens of people suspected of taking part in the violence, Iwendi said.

Chima Ezeoke, a Maiduguri resident, said the protesters attacked and looted shops owned by minority Christians, most of them with origins in the country's south.

"Most of the dead were Christians beaten to death on the streets by the rioters," Ezeoke said.

Nigeria, Africa's most populous country of more than 130 million people, is roughly divided between a predominantly Muslim north and a mainly Christian south.

Mutual suspicions between Christians and Muslims often break out into sectarian violence in Nigeria.

Thousands of people have died in this West African country since 2000 in religious violence fueled by the adoption of the strict Islamic or Shariah legal code by a dozen states in the north, seen by most Christians as a move to impose religious hegemony on non-Muslims.

The cartoons, which first appeared in a Danish newspaper in September, have set off sometimes violent protests around the world. One caricature shows Muhammad wearing a bomb-shaped turban with an ignited fuse.

Islam widely holds that representations of Muhammad are banned for fear they could lead to idolatry.

A Danish newspaper first printed the caricatures in September. Other Western newspapers, mostly in Europe, have reprinted the pictures, asserting their news value and the right to freedom of expression.

Nigeria has been spared much of the violence the issue has sparked in other parts of the world.

On Feb. 7, lawmakers in the heavily Muslim state of Kano burned Danish and Norwegian flags outside the local parliament building and barred Danish companies from bidding on a major construction project.

Kano state's 40 lawmakers also voted unanimously to cancel a US$25 million (Ђ20 million) contract to buy 70 Danish buses while calling on the state's 5 million people to boycott goods from Denmark, reports AP.

O.Ch.