Jeremiah (10) stares blankly at a window, tears rolling down his burn-scarred cheeks as he recounts how his father doused him with petrol and set him ablaze, accusing him of witchcraft.

He is just one of hundreds of children in southern Nigeria's Niger Delta oil region thrown out of their homes, tortured or killed after they are branded witches by a new crop of self-styled religious leaders.

About a dozen phony pastors have been arrested -- one on murder charges -- after he confessed in a documentary film to having killed 110 child witches. He now says he killed only the witches inside the children, not the children themselves.

At a centre in Eket, Akwa Ibom's oil town, Jeremiah and over 170 other children -- aged between 18 months and 16 years -- have sought or been brought to the emergency shelter. Many bear scars of physical torture -- machete cuts, burns or a nail drilled into the head.

It has been more than a year since Jeremiah fled from his home, but he suffered months of abuse at the hands of his parents after he was accused of sorcery.

"We were having a revival at church one night when from nowhere, the pastor's wife stood up to say I was a witch," recounts Jeremiah.

He was immediately locked up at the pastor's house and starved and assaulted with clubs as part of the exorcism exercise.

When he moved back home his father tied a noose around his neck and led him to a nearby school grounds, but apparently developed cold feet.

In minute detail he recounts how over several weeks, his parents locked him up in a room and starved and flogged him. That was before his father torched him, accusing him of being behind his losing a job with an oil firm.

"One day my father came in with a jerrycan and poured petrol on my face and my clothes and lit matches. I was burnt and for several days I could not open my eyes and my mouth," he said, before slipping into a long silence, and then sudden gush of tears.

Despite the seriousness of the burns which left him permanently scarred, he was not allowed to seek medical care. Days later, he sighted another jerrycan of fuel in the house and knew it was time to flee.

His father was arrested for attempted murder and faced 14 years in jail.

Jeremiah asked for the charges to be dropped on the grounds that he was the sole breadwinner for his three sisters.

Sam Ikpe-Itauma, head of the Children's Rights and Rehabilitation Network (CRARN), counts Jeremiah and the others at the centre as the lucky ones.

"Some die, they are thrown into the sea. Many are forced to eat a poisonous wild berry, in the belief that if you eat and don't die, you are not a witch, if you die then you are a witch. But there are hardly any survivors," he said.

As in many other parts of Africa, the belief in witchcraft is not new in Nigeria, but children have before been targets. Some experts blame Christian extremism and polygamous rivalry.

Locals say the main factor is greed on the part of the self-proclaimed pastors who have proliferated in the area in recent years.

"You have to be seen to spiritually powerful to draw the crowds and in the process collect lots of money in offerings," said Ikpe-Utauma.

The phony pastors who claim to exorcise the children also get paid in cash or kind for deliverance and counselling sessions.

Eket could pass for Nigeria's pentecostal church capital. Every 50m banners on palm trees or telephone lines advertise dozens of churches such as the Deliverance Tabernacle, the Eagles Domain or the Chariots of the Holy Spirit, some of them just makeshift shelters covered in tarpaulin.

"There is an explosion of fake evangelists," said Herbert Batta, a university lecturer in the state capital Uyo, adding that the self-made pastors know there is nothing wrong with the children they brand.

"Some people are making brisk business out of defenceless children. It's greed, targeting gullible and susceptible rural people," said Akwa Ibom State spokesperson Aniekan Umanah.

Religion "is the only industry we have in Akwa Ibom outside oil", said a local taxi driver.

Reverend Prince Antai, an Anglican in Akwa Ibom describes as "very disturbing" the practice by people "trying to create jobs for themselves" while tarnishing the image of Christianity.

Chigbo Ekwealo, a university of Lagos philosopher and witchcraft specialist, emphasised that the inhabitants of Akwa Ibom rank among some of Nigeria's poorest and are easy to exploit.

Just three weeks ago state authorities raided a church on the outskirts of Uyo and rescued 30 children -- some of them triplets, some autistic -- who had been locked up there for weeks on suspicion they were witches.

Caroline (13) who has a machete cut scar on her chin, recalls how her father threw her on the rooftop of their home then followed her up and pushed her to the ground, suspecting she caused an accident he had had with his fuel tanker.

Last year Mary (5) was thrown out of the family home after her mother died.

"My father called somebody to the house who said I am a witch. He beat me up, and I ran away," said Mary who was spotted one early morning while wandering along the seashore.

Two-year-old Favour, was last year dumped at the shelter along with her sisters aged six and four -- by their mother, who believed they were all witches and wanted nothing to do with them.

Source: Agence France Presse