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DUBAI, Feb 1 (Reuters) – An al Qaeda group in North Africa has offered to give Nigerian Muslims training and weapons to fight Christians in the West African country, where more than 460 people were killed in sectarian clashes last month.
Vice President Goodluck Jonathan sent in the military to halt the violence after four days of clashes between Christian and Muslim mobs armed with guns, knives and machetes in the area round the city of Jos in central Nigeria. “We are ready to train your people in weapons, and give you whatever support we can in men, arms and munitions to enable you to defend our people in Nigeria,” the statement by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) said.
It was signed in the name of Abu Mus’ab Abdel-Wadoud, who was described as the “emir”, or leader, of the group, and appeared on Islamic websites that often carry statements from groups using the al Qaeda name around the world. “You are not alone in this test. The hearts of Mujahideen are in pain over your troubles and desire to help you as much as possible, in the Islamic Maghreb, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Chechnya,” it said.
Nigeria has roughly equal numbers of Christians and Muslims, though traditional animist beliefs underpin many people’s faith.
About 1 million people were killed in Nigeria’s 1967-70 civil war, and there have been outbreaks of religious unrest since then. But more than 200 ethnic groups generally live peacefully side by side in the West African oil producer.
Last month’s violence erupted after an argument between Muslim and Christian neighbours over the rebuilding of homes destroyed in previous clashes in 2008.
A Nigerian man tried to bomb a U.S.-bound plane on Dec. 25 in an attack claimed by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a Saudi-Yemeni group using the al Qaeda name and based in Yemen.
AQIM kidnapped a Frenchman and three Spaniards in the Sahara late last year and said it would kill the French hostage by the end of January unless Mali freed four al Qaeda prisoners.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said on Monday the group had extended the deadline.
AQIM has waged a campaign of suicide bombings and ambushes in Algeria but in the past few years has shifted many of its activities south to the Sahara desert.
Last year it killed a British tourist, Edwin Dyer, after kidnapping him on the border between Niger and Mali while he was attending a festival of Tuareg culture.
The group also said it shot dead a U.S. aid worker in the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott in June last year and carried out a suicide bombing on the French embassy there in August that injured three people.
Saharan states have been planning a regional conference to map out a joint response to the al Qaeda threat for more than a year, but the gathering has been postponed repeatedly. (Reporting by Andrew Hammond, editing by Tim Pearce)