Organizers decided to move the contest from Nigeria to London "for the sake of the nation," pageant publicist Stella Din said. "Even though we believe this violence is not connected to us ... we didn't want any more bloodshed."
Red Cross workers have recovered "well over 100" bodies in Kaduna, a northern city of several million people with a history of Muslim-Christian violence. Nigerian Red Cross president Emmanuel Ijewere declined to give a precise death toll for fear of "inflaming the situation further." He also said 400 people were being treated in hospitals for injuries.
Dozens of beauty queens, some wearing business suits with high heels, smiled and waved as they lugged suitcases and shopping bags onto a chartered Cameroon Airlines Boeing 747, which took off — some 12 hours behind schedule — at 3:45 a.m.
The delay was caused by difficulties obtaining airspace permission, organizers said.
Several contestants hugged policewomen as they exited the plush Abuja Nicon Hilton, Nigeria's fanciest hotel, where they had stayed under heavy guard during the violence.
The London show was set for Dec. 7, the same day it was planned for Nigeria. Government officials were not immediately available for comment.
Julia Morley, Miss World president, told journalists the pageant was forced to abandon Nigeria because of media coverage linking the contest to the violence.
"There are many things wrong with Nigeria, just as we know across the world many things go wrong. If we considered violence around the world, I wouldn't even be in England. We have Northern Ireland and yet no one minds going to England," she said.
Morley accused foreign journalists, particularly, of jeopardizing the future of Miss World, which competes for global television coverage with the rival Miss Universe contest.
"You're my bread and butter. And I need you," she told journalists at the hotel. "But you're trying to kill me and I hate this. You're trying to kill my business."
Ethnic and religious fighting is common in Africa's most populous nation. Previous riots in Kaduna escalated into religious battles that killed hundreds after civilian government replaced military rule in 1999.
The latest bloodshed started Wednesday in Kaduna and spread Friday to the capital, Abuja, where the beauty contest was to have been held.
Mobs of Christians attacked Muslims in southern neighborhoods of Kaduna "with new bitterness" Saturday because they viewed the pageant's cancellation as a "Muslim victory," Nigerian Red Cross president Emmanuel Ijewere said.
The homes of at least 4,000 people were destroyed, he said.
Through the violence, the more than 80 Miss World contestants remained under Nigerian police and army guard.
At least one beauty queen, Miss Canada Lynsey Bennet, left her hotel room on Friday evening before organizers canceled the pageant, Din said. Bennet was believed to have flown Saturday morning to London, Western diplomats said on condition of anonymity.
Miss South Korea also left early, Morley said.
Miss Puerto Rico, Casandra Polo Berrios, told The Associated Press she was "sad to be leaving" Nigeria. She said she was unaware of the fighting until her mother called Friday to make sure she was safe.
The mother of Miss Scotland said her daughter, Paula, told her over the phone that she planned to discontinue her involvement with the pageant.
"And she also said, `If I got the title it would mean nothing to me because it would always be linked to killings and I couldn't handle that,"' Josephine Murphy said from Stirling, Scotland.
Islamic groups have complained for months that the beauty pageant promotes promiscuity. But organizers insisted the women never intended to offend anyone.
The situation worsened after ThisDay newspaper published an article Nov. 16 suggesting the prophet Muhammad would have approved of the pageant.
"What would Muhammad think? In all honesty, he would probably have chosen a wife from among them," Isioma Daniel wrote.
After Muslims called the article offensive, the newspaper published a brief front-page apology Monday and lengthier retractions Thursday and Friday.
Isolated pockets of fighting were reported Saturday in Kaduna. In the Trikania neighborhood, Muslim and Christian mobs pursued each other with sticks and knives. As police tried to disperse the rioters with tear gas, gunshots also were heard.
The Red Cross president said the conflict caught the Nigerian security forces by surprise because they had not expected violence during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
In many some parts of Kaduna, however, an uneasy calm returned. Some residents who took refuge in police stations and army bases began venturing back to sift through the smoking ruins of their homes for belongings.