Text messages that urged people to murder and then burn their victims' bodies helped stoke inter-religious violence in central Nigeria that killed hundreds of people last week, police and rights activists said on Tuesday.
Rights activists have identified at least 145 texts that circulated on mobile phones in the central city of Jos, the epicentre of four days of Muslim-Christian clashes that authorities said killed 326 people.
"The messages helped escalate the violence in Jos in that some of them instructed people on how to kill, dispose of and burn bodies," said leading rights activist Shehu Sani.
The texts were aimed at "spreading rumours and inflaming tensions," said Sani, who heads a coalition of 32 Nigerian civil and human rights groups called the Civil Rights Congress.
One of the messages seen by AFP read : "War, war, war. Stand up ... and defend yourselves. Kill before they kill you. Slaughter before they slaughter you. Dump them in a pit before they dump you."
In Kuru Karama, a former mining village and Muslim enclave in a Christian district south of Jos, attackers who killed more than 150 villagers disposed of the bodies systematically.
Corpses were stuffed in water wells, pits, and sewer and irrigation canals, while others were burnt. Community leaders and health workers have put the death toll at more than 550.
Dozens of cars, houses, churches and mosques were set ablaze during the violence, which was condemned by Muslim and Christian leaders.
'Alert other brethren'
Another text message warned of alleged plans to attack Christians and churches on Sunday, saying: "Brother, please act in any way you can. Alert other brethren."
Another urged Christians to shun food sold by Muslim hawkers alleging it could be poisoned, while another claimed political leaders were planning to cut water supplies with the intent to dehydrate and weaken members of one faith.
To a lesser extent, chats on social networks such as Facebook also helped users embolden their beliefs.
"Different Facebookers have taken stands in defence of their religion," said Sani.
Leaders of both faiths told their followers to ignore the messages.
Police are trying to pinpoint the source of the messages, police spokesperson Mohammed Lerama said.
However, tracing the origins of the messages may prove an uphill task given that Nigeria is yet to start registering phone SIM cards.
"The communication infrastructure has played a part in all major cases of recent atrocities in Africa... in transmitting vile messages," said Chidi Odinkalu of the Open Society Initiative citing the 2007 post-election violence in Kenya and most recently the riots in Uganda's capital Kampala.
Mandatory SIM registration is set to kick off in Nigeria in March, according to the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC).
"We think it is relevant at this time. Not only have the security agencies reported some breaches, we feel it will assist to track users," said NCC spokesperson Reuben Muoka.
Nigeria has more than 70 million cellphone line subscribers, or about one line per every two people.
The Open Society Initiative said on Tuesday it had called an urgent meeting of civil society groups on Thursday to seek an independent investigation into the killings.
More than 300 people suspected of involvement in the violence have been arrested.