Police battle Nigerian demonstrators; junta debates democracy

LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — Nigeria’s military junta on Thursday debated a transition to democracy while riots and protests flared anew over the death of the country’s most prominent political prisoner.
Fires lit in anger burned through parts of a popular central market in the commercial capital of Lagos; homes there and in the southern city of Abeokuta were gutted by arsonists’ fires.
The bodies of at least 24 victims from violence Wednesday have been either spotted or collected.
Police say the Lagos fires were set by youths enraged at the death earlier this week of Moshood Abiola, the imprisoned businessman who was the apparent winner of 1993’s annulled presidential elections.
The government says he died of a heart attack but his backers believe he was killed by the junta.
Many members of Abiola’s family also have said they believe he was killed.
Brief skirmishes between police and demonstrators also broke out in the southwestern city of Ile-Ife, where the university has been shut down.
Abiola had been in prison since 1994, but many hoped he would emerge from jail to fulfill his 1993 electoral mandate. He died Tuesday after suddenly falling ill during a meeting with U.S. diplomats. He was 60.
A potent symbol of reform for Nigeria’s poor masses, Abiola was enormously popular in Nigeria’s southwest, home of his Yoruba ethnic group.
While Abiola reportedly had been seriously ill last year, his death came as a surprise, just days after U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan announced that all Nigeria’s political prisoners would be freed, including Abiola.