Nigerian authorities said they will investigate whether the military complied with the rules of engagement in a clash with Islamist militants that a local official said left 185 people dead, mostly civilians.
Preliminary briefings given to President Goodluck Jonathan “indicate that the casualty figures being reported by the foreign media may be grossly exaggerated,” presidential spokesman Reuben Abati said yesterday in an e-mailed statement. The military said today that only six civilians were killed in the fighting.
International rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have criticized the Nigerian security forces for using excessive force as they battle the Islamist group, Boko Haram. The militants have carried out gun and bomb attacks in the north of Africa’s top oil producer that have killed hundreds of people since 2009.
The fighting in the northeastern town of Baga in which one soldier died started on April 19 after a military patrol was attacked near a mosque where Boko Haram fighters hid weapons in the past, Brigadier General Austin Edokpaye said on a visit to the area on April 21. Militants “came out with heavy firepower” including rocket-propelled grenades, he told Borno state Governor Kashim Shettima.
Baga residents buried at least 185 bodies, while more people sustained injuries and were in the hospital, Lawan Kole, a local government official in the Kukawa council area, said the same day.
Edokpaye said today that as well as the six civilians who lost their lives, 30 Boko Haram fighters and one soldier were killed in the fighting. Five soldiers and 10 civilians were injured, while five Boko Haram members were arrested and many others escaped with bullet wounds, he said in a statement handed to reporters today in Maiduguri, Borno state capital.
“Contrary to media speculation that hundreds of houses were burnt, instead it was the explosion from Boko Haram terrorist rocket propelled grenade bombs, anti-aircraft guns and sophisticated improvised explosive device materials that triggered fire to about 30 thatched houses in the predominantly fishing community,” said Edokpaye.
Senator Maina Ma’aji Lawan, who represents Borno North, put the death toll between 180 and 200. Speaking before the Senate today, he said violence will only end when the root causes of the insurgency are addressed.
The National Emergency Management Agency couldn’t confirm the number of people killed in the clash because many of them were already buried in compliance with Muslim teachings, Ibrahim Farinloye, a spokesman for the agency, said today by phone from Lagos. More than 2,000 houses were burned down, he said.
Edokpaye denied the military was to blame for the deaths, saying that Boko Haram members used civilians as human shields. He rejected allegations by residents that the shootout was unprovoked.
The senate passed a resolution today for the committees on defense, police and national security and intelligence to investigate the issue and report back to the senate in two weeks.
The U.S. believes Nigeria needs to address “legitimate northern grievances” in the fight against Boko Haram, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell told reporters yesterday in Washington, according to an e-mailed transcript.
“The response should be to address some of those legitimate needs and concerns of the people in the north so that that’s not being exploited by this group, who clearly has perpetrated some very awful violence,” he said.
The country’s two biggest opposition parties also condemned the incident.
This type of excessive use of force “falls far short from internationally accepted rules of engagement for internal peace enforcement,” the Congress for Progressive Change, headed by former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari, who won a majority of votes in the north in the 2011 elections, said today in an e-mailed statement, calling the incident a “massacre.”
The Action Congress of Nigeria, which controls six states in the southwest, including Lagos, the commercial capital, said the military must adhere to rules of engagement in its operations.
“No matter what defense the military may put forward, the mass deaths and destruction in Baga during the Joint Task Force-insurgents’ clash portray the Nigerian military as having little or no respect for human rights and the sanctity of lives,” the ACN said in a statement. “This is not a flattering portrayal for a military that has made its mark in global peacekeeping.”
Jonathan said April 17 that he set up a committee that will draft a plan to grant amnesty to Boko Haram and disarm the group in a 60-day period. The announcement came less than a week after Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, said the group won’t accept a government amnesty.