Owerri And Wale Olaleye in Lagos With Agency Reports — The religious cum ethnic crisis which broke out as a result of Nigeria's hosting of the Miss World Beauty Pageant at the weekend assu-med a worse dimension as it spreads to three cities in the South-east zone, Aba, Owerri and Okigwe.
But the Minister of Information and National Orientation, Professor Jerry Gana ascribed Nigeria's loss of the hosting rights of the Miss World Beauty Pageant to conspiracy by the international press led by the British press.
However, President Olusegun Obasanjo yesterday led a special prayer for the nation, as he asked God to ensure peace and tranquility in the nation from now on.
Gana who felt disappointed by the relocation of the grand finale of the pageant to London from Abuja where the beauty queens had already assembled said the scheme by the international press to deny an African country of hosting the competition was aided by the local press.
"There's an international conspiracy just to show that an African country like Nigeria cannot host this thing. I think Nigerians should be really angry with the international press," he said.
He continued: "I salute the courage of the contestants. They came all the way here despite the conspiracy of the international press... particularly the British press," he said.
Gana also criticised THISDAY for its publication which was used by the opposition to the hosting of the beauty pageant in staging violent protests.
The violent protests which claimed several lives in Kaduna where it began last Wednesday however took a more dangerous dimension as reprisal attacks in three South-east towns, forced some Northerners resident in Owerri, Okigwe and Aba to scamper into safety in military barracks.
In Aba, protesters who believed that some religious fundamentalists had hidden under the cover of the anti-Miss World protests to execute ethnic agenda by attacking Igbo-Christian traders resident in Kaduna and destroying their businesses decided to retaliate on Hausa traders in the commercial town.
The protesters then stormed the Central Mosque and injured at least 10 people. They also destroyed goods and property on adjoining streets.
The affected places were Ame Hausa, Hospital Road, Jubilee Road, Azikiwe Road, Clifford Junction, and St. Michael's Road Junctions.
A detachment of mobile policemen had, however, cordoned of the affected areas as at the time of going to press.
Leader of the Hausa community in Aba, Alhaji Tanko Bello said the protesters destroyed food items, wares and razed all stalls located near the central mosque.
He said that fear of further attacks forced the non-indigenes to flee to the Police Area Commander's office for safety.
"The people came in early in the morning and started destroying our food, clothing and property. They also destroyed louvres," Bello said.
Contacted, the Area Commander in Aba merely said: "You can go and get your information anywhere. I will not speak to any journalist."
While addressing members of the Hausa community on Sunday, Senator Adolphus Wabara, representing Abia South Senatorial District part of whose constituency Aba falls, urged residents to remain calm, as the police would fish out the perpetrators of the violence.
"I want you to remain assured that the government would help in reducing your travail as I am going to Abuja to tell the Senate and my colleagues about what has happened and with 40 or 50 of my senators putting pressure on the government, they will surely bring succour to everyone," he said.
The senator also told Muslims in the commercial city that what happened was not a reflection of the true attitude of the Igbo, who he said are very accommodating.
"This incident is regrettable and will stand condemned," he said.
Efforts to speak with the Police Commissioner in Umuahia, proved futile as the telephone in his office rang without a reply.
And in Owerri and Okigwe, most Northerners resident in the towns were forced to flee their homes and abandoned their property to take refuge at the Artillery Brigade Army Barrack, Obinze following early morning outbreak of fighting between some Igbo youths and members of the Hausa community.
Eye-witness account told THISDAY in Owerri that the skirmish began yesterday morning when news of the protest by muslim fundamentalists in Kaduna and Abuja reached the Hausa community in Owerri that fresh fighting may have begun yesterday in Aba, Abia State, following protest against the cancelled beauty pageant.
The eye-witness who pleaded anonimity told THISDAY that hundreds of Hausa people who fled their residents encountered pockets of Igbo youths who engaged them in retaliatory duel, following the killing of their own kinsmen in Kaduna at the weekend.
Although, the state Commissioner of Police, Mr Beneth Oghomone could not be reached at press time for comments, a detachment of mobile policemen, consisting of about fifty were seen stationed at the Ama-Awusa area of Douglass Street, to forestall any major outbreak of violence.
Eye-witnesses however confirmed that no lives were lost on both sides.
President Obasanjo who personally led the prayers at the Aso Rock chapel prayed to God to bring lasting peace, stability and development to the country.
The president who was accompanied to the service was accompanied by his wife, Stella, the chairman of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Chief Audu Ogbeh and the party's South-west zone national vice chairman, Chief Olabode George, said only God's mercy can make a nation to grow.
"We praise you and worship you for you are the Lord Almighty, the creator of the universe, may you continue to live in our life," he said.
At the special prayer session: the First Sermon was read by George while Mrs. Obasanjo read the second from the book of Ecclesiaste.
Also Governor James Ibori of Delta State has urged Muslims across the country to accept THISDAY's apology as well as Muslim leaders' advice to give peace a chance.
Ibori who made this appeal yesterday in a faxed statement he personally signed however admitted that the portion of the publication being complained of was not only provocative, but wrong moreso coming from an esteemed newspaper like THISDAY.
Ibori who recalled what had transpired in the last one week said it was regrettable that such development came at a time when the country was supposed to be hosting Miss World Pageant.
Besides, the governor said this period was also crucial in the sense that all hands should be on deck to ensure a successful return to civil rule.
"It is my considered opinion that what the newspaper wrote was wrong, thoughtless and provocative. I wish however, to join the offending newspaper and all Nigerians to appeal to our Muslim brothers and sisters to accept the apology of the newspaper and accept the advice of Muslim leaders to let the matter rest and give peace a chance.
"In the spirit of Ramadan, let us forgive and forget and join hands together to build a united and prosperous Nigeria. May the blessings of Ramadan be upon us all", Ibori prayed.
Meanwhile, 80 Miss World contestants arrived in London yesterday after the organisers decided on Friday to move the contest from Abuja to London.
Crisis erupted in Kaduna in protest against a newspaper article believed to have blasphemed Prophet Mohammed. The crisis with religious colouration saw some Muslim fundamentalists attacking Christians and churches. The office of THISDAY in Kaduna and Bauchi were also burnt in protest against the publication of the offensive article.
At least 22 churches and 8 mosques were destroyed in the rampage, Shehu Sani of the Kaduna-based Civil Rights Congress told AP. Ten hotels were also badly damaged, said Sani, whose group said several people had been killed.
The violent protests were later directed at the insensitivity of Federal Government for hosting the Miss World competition in the month of Ramadan, an action the Muslims were opposed to.
The turn of events forced the organisers of the competition to move the venue of its grand finale to London while the contestants who were already in Nigeria were flown to London.
By yesterday morning, a tense calm was reported in Kaduna as the relieved contestants arrived at Gatwick Airport, London, on a chartered Cameroons Airlines Boeing 747.
Organisers said they hoped to put the "ugly incident" behind them by ensuring that when the contest was held on December 7 it would bear all the hallmarks of everything Nigerian.
"All we want to do now is to give Miss World 2002 the publicity it deserves," a spokeswoman told the UK's Press Association.
"I feel very well. I'm happy to be back in London," said Miss France Caroline Chamorand as she pushed her baggage trolley past waiting photographers.
"I am happy to be home, excited," said Miss England, 22-year-old Daniella Luan. "Obviously it's been quite daunting but I'm just happy to be home, looking forward to seeing my family."
But she said her information about events in Nigeria had come from CNN reports as she was kept in her hotel for security reasons.
Before boarding her plane Miss Australia, Nicole Gazal, said most Nigerians supported the event. "I feel sorry for the Nigerian people," she told CNN.
"What I have seen the people really loved us staying in Nigeria. I think it is a shame a small number of people could cause such havoc ... and push the pageant away."
Several contestants hugged policewomen as they left a luxury hotel in the capital Abuja, where they had stayed under heavy guard during the violence between Christians and Muslims.
An article published by THISDAY on the beauty pegeant had been seen as insulting to Muslims, particularly as it was published during the holy month of Ramadan.
Despite front-page apologies by the paper early in the week, Muslims rioted. Christians then retaliated against Muslims. The newspaper's offices in Kaduna were burned down and there were reports of churches and mosques being torched.
Contest spokeswoman Stella Din said the contestants were feeling "really miserable."
The contestants were under heavy guard while they were in Nigeria "They were never in any danger but there are times you have to step back and take steps. We are very sorry it has come to this," Din said.
"Even though we believe this violence is not connected to us ... we didn't want any more bloodshed."
The holding of the contest in a country where 50 percent of the population are Muslim and there has been pressure to introduce Sharia in some northern districts had already caused controversy.
At least five contestants failed to show up in Nigeria for the contest. Four said they were boycotting because of sentences passed by Nigerian Islamic courts sentencing Muslim women to death by stoning for having sex outside marriage.
The Miss World contest, now in its 53rd year, is watched on television by more than two billion viewers worldwide, according to the pageant's Web site.
The current Miss World is Agbani Darego of Nigeria, -- it was her triumph last year that led to the country's decision to host the contest.