| India’s Miss World contestant Shruti Sharma arrives at London’s Gatwick Airport. (Reuters)
Abuja, Nov. 24 (Reuters): The death toll rose to 175 in Nigerian riots sparked by controversy over the Miss World pageant, whose contestants flew to Britain today after organisers hastily moved the event.
Human rights workers said fighting was still going on in the northern Nigerian city of Kaduna and soldiers and police officers had been arrested on suspicion of taking sides in the Muslim-Christian bloodletting.
The Nigerian Red Cross sharply raised the death toll in Kaduna today to 175 from 105.
The rioting in Kaduna began as a protest against a newspaper article that offended Muslims because it said the Prophet Mohammad would probably have married one of the Miss World contestants were he alive today.
The allegations of killings by security forces could, if confirmed, dramatically raise the stakes in the fighting in Kaduna.
Relieved beauty queens climbed aboard a chartered flight and headed to London, the city now slated to hold the contest still scheduled for December 7. On arrival, the contestants managed a smile and a wave for the cameras at London’s Gatwick airport.
“I feel wonderful to be here,” said Miss USA, Rebekah Revels, wearing a black top and jeans, as she waved to a media scrum packed behind airport crush barriers.
“I am so excited, I feel so happy,” said Miss England, 22-year-old Daniella Luan, wearing a translucent brown top and a long denim skirt.
“I am so pleased to be back in Britain, and that’s the general feeling among all of us,” said Willie Hendrey, 27, from Brighton, southern England, one of two hairdressers on the flight. “All the girls wanted to look their best, so they all clamoured for the bathroom towards the end of the flight,” he added.
“What has happened is a bit of a shame because the international press has highlighted a little incidence of some rioting way out of all proportion,” Guy Murray-Bruce, the director of Miss World Nigeria, told BBC radio.
As the relieved beauty queens arrived at London’s Gatwick airport aboard a chartered flight from Abuja, Nigeria faced the prospect of serious economic and political damage from the fiasco surrounding the event.
The government had thrown its weight behind the pageant, hoping to show Nigeria in a good light and boost tourism in a country almost totally dependent on oil exports for its foreign earnings.
Even before the riots the contest had proved controversial, some participants threatening to boycott it if a Muslim woman sentenced to death under Muslim Sharia Law for bearing a child outside marriage were not reprieved.