LAGOS, Jan. 1 (GIN) - At a meeting of local Christian groups, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo publicly apologised for the killing of more than 200 unarmed civilians by the army in Benue State in October 2001.

   The army has been accused of several mass killings since civilian rule was restored in Nigeria in 1999. Mr Obasanjo is seeking re-election in April and this Sunday faces a former minister from Benue State in primaries for the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP).

   The killing of ethnic Tivs was apparently in retaliation for the abduction and murder of 19 soldiers sent to quash fighting between Tivs and Jukuns, the biggest group in neighbouring Taraba State.

   Human Rights Watch, a New York based rights group, has strongly condemned the Nigerian government for first encouraging, then failing to condemn, the military action.

   "I am sorry, it should never have happened," Mr Obasanjo said.

   Over a three-day period, soldiers entered a series of towns and villages, including Zaki Bam, in Benue State and opened fire on unarmed residents.

   Journalists who arrived at the scene less than 24 hours after the soldiers had left saw scores of bullet-ridden corpses and every single building razed to the ground in towns otherwise deserted by their terrified populations.

   Human Rights Watch said that those killed by the military were targeted simply because they were Tivs.

   The Army has also been blamed for a massacre in the southern town of Odi in which thousands of people were killed.