Nigerian Human Rights Body Probes Alleged Civilian Killings

Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission is investigating the clashes between troops and Islamist fighters in the northeastern town of Baga which may have killed 185 civilians.

“In order to understand what happened, it is necessary to undertake an independent and credible assessment,” Anselm Odinkalu, chairman of the commission, said in an e-mailed statement yesterday.

Baga residents buried at least 185 bodies, Lawan Kole, a local government official in the Kukawa area council, said last week. The fighting began April 19 after a military patrol was attacked near a mosque where Islamist militants from the Boko Haram group hid weapons in the past, according to Austin Edokpaye, a spokesman for the joint military task force in the region.

As many as 200 civilians died when security forces enraged by the killing of a soldier retaliated, the New York Times reported today, citing people who fled the violence, relief workers, civilian officials and human-rights organizations it didn’t identify. Chris Olukolade, a spokesman for the Defense Ministry, denied the allegations in a phone interview today from Abuja, the capital.

Nigeria is Africa’s top oil producer and the continent’s most populous nation.

Bomb Attacks

The U.S. State Department and international rights groups, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have criticized the Nigerian military and police for using excessive force as they battle Boko Haram. The militants have carried out gun and bomb attacks in the mainly Muslim north and in Abuja, the capital, that have killed hundreds of people since 2009.

Maina Ma’aji Lawan, a senator representing the area at the Nigerian National Assembly, said on April 27 that 228 people were killed during the clashes and more than 4,000 houses were burnt. He spoke to reporters in Maiduguri after visiting three graveyards in Baga.

According to the military, only six civilians were killed while one soldier and 30 Boko Haram fighters died in the fighting.

“We still believe and we have good reason to believe that no soldier could have done that level of atrocity,” Olukolade said. Boko Haram is known to retaliate against people who expose their activities, he said.

President Goodluck Jonathan’s office said on April 21 that the government will investigate whether the military complied with rules of engagement.

“This is quite a trying moment for this country in terms of security,” Agence France-Presse quoted Jonathan as saying yesterday. “We have challenges from the south to the north, from the east to the west.”

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