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LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — A human wave of more than 20,000 surrounded the Muslim faithful as they prayed toward Mecca yesterday, as anti-government demonstrations over spiraling fuel prices and corruption showed unity among protesters despite growing sectarian tensions in Africa's most populous nation.

While violence sparked by religious and ethnic divisions left about 1,500 people dead last year alone in Nigeria, some hope the ongoing protests gripping the oil-rich nation will bring together a country that already suffered through a bloody civil war.

"It shows that Nigeria is now coming together as one family," said Abdullahi Idowu, 27, as he prepared to wash himself before Friday prayers.

Labor unions, meanwhile, announced yesterday they would halt their five-day strike for the weekend, allowing families stuck largely inside their homes to go to markets and rest. Union leaders also plan to meet President Goodluck Jonathan and government officials on today for new negotiations, just ahead of a promised labour shutdown of Nigeria's oil industry.

Nigeria, which produces about 2.4 million barrels of crude a day, is the fifth-largest oil exporter to the US. While the country has a several-week stock of oil ready for export, the threatened shutdown tomorrow could shake oil futures as traders remained concerns about worldwide supply.

The strike began Monday, paralysing the nation of more than 160 million people. The root cause remains gasoline prices: President Goodluck Jonathan's government abandoned subsidies that kept gasoline prices low January 1, causing prices to spike from $1.70 per gallon (45 cents per liter) to at least $3.50 per gallon (94 cents per liter).

The costs of food and transportation also largely doubled in a nation where most people live on less than $2 a day.

Anger over losing one of the few benefits average Nigerians see from being an oil-rich country, as well as disgust over government corruption, have led to demonstrations across this nation and violence that has killed at least 10 people. Red Cross volunteers have treated more than 600 people injured in protests since the strike began, the International Committee of the Red Cross said Friday.

"Over 4,000 persons have also been temporarily displaced there as a result of the strike and communal tensions," said Mamadou Sow, the deputy head of the committee's delegation in Nigeria. "Most of them have now started to return to their homes."

Though Christians gathered around praying Muslims to protect them during their prayers, violence still lurks around the edges of the protest in a country where people are beginning to become hungry. A crowd suddenly ran after a suspected thief at one point, stoning him and beating him with sticks until he fell into a trash and feces-filled ditch.

The crowd continued to throw things at him, cursing.

"This is the life of a Nigerian," a man in the crowd called out. "This is how we live."

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