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Originally published Tuesday, April 19, 2011 at 4:27 AM

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Muslim candidate condemns deadly Nigerian riots

The Muslim candidate who lost Nigeria's presidential election is distancing himself from the angry mobs who have killed Christians and set churches on fire across the country's north, underlining the deep divisions within Africa's most populous nation.

Associated Press

KADUNA, Nigeria —

The Muslim candidate who lost Nigeria's presidential election is distancing himself from the angry mobs who have killed Christians and set churches on fire across the country's north, underlining the deep divisions within Africa's most populous nation.

Muslim rioters burned homes, churches and police stations after results showed Nigeria's Christian president had beaten his closest Muslim opponent in Saturday's vote. Reprisal attacks by Christians began almost immediately, with one mob allegedly tearing a home apart to look for a Quran to prove the occupants were Muslims before setting the building ablaze.

Mobs also engineered two prison breaks, burned down the home of one powerful traditional ruler and attempted to destroy the home of Nigeria's vice president.

On Wednesday, the cries of children could be heard in a makeshift ward at St. Gerald's Catholic hospital in Kaduna, where wounded people lay outside the emergency ward. Authorities have been fearful of inciting more violence by releasing casualties figures, though at least 31 bodies had been found in Kaduna alone.

Opposition candidate Muhammadu Buhari called the violence "sad, unfortunate and totally unwarranted," seeking to distance himself and his party from the riots.

"I must emphasize that this is purely a political matter, and it should not in any way be turned into an ethnic, religious or regional one," Buhari said late Tuesday.

Nigeria has a long history of violent and rigged polls since it abandoned a revolving door of military rulers and embraced democracy 12 years ago. However, observers largely said Saturday's presidential election appeared to be fair, and the U.S. State Department said it was a significant improvement over the last poll in 2007.

The nation of 150 million people is divided between the Christian-dominated south and the Muslim north. A dozen states across Nigeria's north have Islamic Shariah law in place, though the area remains under the control of secular state governments.

Thousands have been killed in religious violence in the past decade. In Kaduna alone, more than 2,000 died as the government moved to enact Islamic Shariah law in 2000. In 2002, rioting over a newspaper article suggesting the prophet Muhammad would have married a Miss World pageant contestant killed dozens here. But the roots of the sectarian conflict across the north often have more to do with struggles for political and economic dominance.

Many northerners wanted the country's ruling party to nominate a Muslim candidate this year because President Goodluck Jonathan - a Christian from the south - had only taken power because the Muslim elected leader died before finishing his term. However, Jonathan prevailed in the ruling party's primary and became its candidate for president.

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