By Heidi Vogt

Dakar, Senegal - An international rights group called on Thursday for Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo to withdraw a bill that would criminalise homosexual relationships, saying the legislation is "draconian" and could hurt anti-Aids efforts.

Obasanjo's administration introduced the bill in January proposing up to five years' imprisonment for anyone who engages in homosexual sex, organises gay rights organisations or partakes in, sanctions or witnesses same-sex marriage ceremonies.

"This draconian measure will only intensify prejudice and discrimination based on sexual orientation," New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement. "The bill criminalise public expressions of love and any defense of lesbian and gay rights."

Government officials weren't immediately available for comment.

Public hostility to homosexual relations is widespread in Nigeria, a largely conservative country of more than 130 million people, split between a mainly Muslim north and a largely Christian south. Nigeria is the most populous nation in Africa.

Human Rights Watch argued that the bill will make it more difficult for Nigeria to combat Aids as its passage would criminalise the work of some groups involved in HIV prevention efforts. It could also drive homosexual populations further underground, making it harder to reach them, the group said.

Nigeria has the world's third-highest population of Aids sufferers, after South Africa and India.

According to official estimates, 3,6 million people in Nigeria are infected with HIV - the virus that causes Aids.

Lawmakers must still vote on the bill, but Obasanjo's governing People's Democratic Party has an overwhelming majority in the legislature. - Sapa-AP