Satellite photographs and witness statements Tuesday strongly challenged denials by Nigeria's government about mass casualties and damage left behind after fighting between the military and Islamic extremists in a northeast Nigeria village where locals say some 187 people were killed.
The release of photographs by Human Rights Watch came as foreign journalists under a military escort finally entered Baga, a fishing village along Lake Chad that officials have had limited access to since the killings. The evidence directly contradicted military claims about limited damage to the town, raising new questions about security forces consistently accused of using excessive violence in trying to put down an Islamic insurgency that's raged across Nigeria's predominantly Muslim north since 2010.
'Things have calmed down for some days now, but we are still burying the dead almost every day' —Abdullahi Gumel, fisherman
Residents who spoke to The Associated Press said soldiers specifically targeted civilians in their retaliation, setting fire to the simple homes in the town.
"I lost everything in my house after soldiers came and set my house ablaze," Ibrahim Modu said. "They met me outside, walked into my house and put it on fire, after which they told me to leave so that I don't get burnt by the fire."
Another witness, fisherman Abdullahi Gumel, said he still could not find one of his sons, days after the attack.
"Things have calmed down for some days now, but we are still burying the dead almost every day," Gumel said.
No breakdown of civilian casualties
Human Rights Watch said an analysis of satellite imagery before and after the attack led them to believe the violence destroyed some 2,275 buildings and severely damaged another 125. The photographs, which the organization released to journalists, showed tell-tale black splotches in the town left behind by massive fires. The images also suggested the violence occurred sometime around April 16 or 17, judging from the plumes of smoke seen rising from the town, Human Rights Watch said.
"The Nigerian military has a duty to protect itself and the population from Boko Haram attacks, but the evidence indicates that it engaged more in destruction than in protection," Human Rights Watch's Africa director Daniel Bekele said in a statement released late Tuesday. "The glaring discrepancies between the facts on the ground and statements by senior military officials raise concerns that they tried to cover up military abuses."
Officials with Nigeria's military could not be immediately reached early Wednesday morning. However, a brigadier general in the region previously said members of the Islamic extremist network Boko Haram used heavy machine-guns and rocket-propelled grenades in the assault, blaming that weaponry for the fires. Extremists earlier had killed a military officer, officials said.
The military said extremists used civilians as human shields during the fighting, indicating that soldiers opened fire in neighbourhoods where they knew civilians lived. On April 23, a military statement claimed "about 30 thatched houses" caught fire in the crossfire, something directly contradicted by the satellite images and what an AP journalist who visited Baga on Tuesday saw.
Officials could not offer a breakdown of civilian casualties versus those of soldiers and extremist fighters. Many bodies had been burned beyond recognition in fires that razed whole sections of the village, residents said. Those killed were buried as soon as possible, following local Muslim tradition. The Nigerian Red Cross later said at least 187 people had been killed.
In a statement Tuesday, presidential spokesman Reuben Abati said authorities had received reports by the military and emergency officials about the violence that criticized "a lot of misinformation being peddled about the situation in Baga."
Still, President Goodluck Jonathan "said that what happened in Baga was most regrettable and unfortunate," the statement read. Jonathan "reaffirmed his full commitment to doing all within the powers of the federal government to speedily end the intolerable threats to national security which have necessitated such confrontations."
Previous violence in Nigeria
There are several major cases in Nigeria's recent history of soldier abuses. In 2001, the military attacked some seven villages in Benue state following ethnic Tiv militants killing soldiers there. Witnesses said some 200 people died in the fighting that saw soldiers ransack villages, shell houses and gun down residents indiscriminately. In 1999, ethnic Ijaw activists claimed more than 200 civilians were killed by the military in Odi in Bayelsa state following the killings of police officers there.
A military raid in Nigeria's oil-rich Delta state in 2010 against militants there killed some 150 people, activists said, though soldiers blocked AP journalists from reaching the area at the time. And in October 2012, when extremists killed a military officer in Maiduguri, soldiers killed at least 30 civilians and set fires across a neighbourhood in retaliation. In all cases, the military denied committing the abuses, though a 2006 United Nations report described how soldiers routinely target and kill civilians in their operations without any oversight or legal repercussions.
Boko Haram, which means "Western education is sacrilege" in the Hausa language of Nigeria's north, has said it wants its imprisoned members freed and strict Shariah law adopted across the multiethnic nation of more than 160 million people. It has sparked several splinter groups and analysts say its members have contact with two other al-Qaeda-linked groups in Africa.
The violence in Baga appears to be the worst spate of killings in a single incident since the insurgency began in 2010. In January 2012, Boko Haram launched a co-ordinated attack in Kano, northern Nigeria's largest city, that killed at least 185 people, the previous worst attack linked to the insurgency.