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article imageHRW: Satellite images reveal 'Nigerian Army abuse' in Baga

By JohnThomas Didymus     May 3, 2013 in World
Maiduguri - Human Rights Watch (HRW) has released satellite images which reveal extensive destruction of civilian property following a military raid on April 16 and 17 in the northern Nigerian town of Baga.
The evidence of the satellite images appear to contradict claims by the Nigerian military authorities that only 30 houses were destroyed during a reprisal attack by Nigerian soldiers after Boko Haram militants attacked a military patrol, killed a soldier and wounded five others.
Baga is a remote fishing fishing community on the shores of Lake Chad, about 200 kilometers northeast of the city of Maiduguri. The northeastern region of the country is the stronghold of the Boko Haram sect which has been engaged in armed rebellion against the federal government since 2009.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on the Nigerian government to investigate the allegations that Nigerian troops went on a rampage, killing and destroying civilian property after militants attacked a military patrol and killed a soldier. According to HRW, the evidence from satellite imagery directly contradicts military claims about limited damage to the town.
Satellite image showing Baga destruction
Satellite image showing Baga destruction
Google/Human Rights Watch
This is not the first time that Nigerian security forces have been accused of using excessive and indiscriminate violence in internal conflicts. Digital Journal writes:
... the tactical procedure Nigerian troops adopt... has been criticized by local and international observers: An incident in which militants kill an army personnel will often be followed by a vengeful reprisal attack after insurgents might have withdrawn or taken up positions facilitating easy tactical withdrawal, but leaving innocent civilians exposed to soldiers who, under the pretext of fighting insurgents, open fire on anything that moves....
In a similar incident in Maiduguri a few months ago, soldiers killed 30 civilians in an attack after insurgents reportedly killed a military officer. Observers have expressed concern about the crude tactics of the Nigerian troops which they say provoke opposition among the local civilian populace and win popular support for the militants.
The indiscriminate nature of the attack is reflected in the fact that officials could not give a breakdown of casualties, according to AP. Many of the bodies of victims were burned beyond recognition in the fires that razed large sections of the town.
The Nigerian military authorities denied the claims that more than 2,000 homes and nearly 200 were killed in the inferno. PM reports that in a statement released following the attack, Brig. Gen. Austin Edokpaye, commander of the troops in Baga, said: "... contrary to media speculation that hundreds of houses were burnt down, instead, it was the explosions from Boko Haram terrorists... [that] triggered fire to about 30 thatched houses."
Human Rights Watch interviewed residents of the town who claimed that soldiers went on a rampage killing civilians and burning homes. HRW writes:
A 27-year-old woman, who stayed in her house after the gunfire erupted, described... how soldiers went door-to-door looking for any men that remained in her neighborhood.
"I saw the soldiers drag a man out of another house. They started beating him with their guns. They were beating him severely and he was crying," she said. "The man then ran, and I saw the soldiers shoot him. I heard the gunshots and saw him fall. On the other side of the road the soldiers were beating other people."
Another resident, a 32-year-old fisherman, believes soldiers killed his uncle, whose bad leg kept him from fleeing the town. He discovered his uncle’s badly beaten body after the attack.
"We heard the soldiers say before [the attack] that since you people are not cooperating with us and are hiding your brothers, we will treat you as one of them,” the fisherman told Human Rights Watch. "I heard the soldiers say this. Everyone heard them say this. They were saying this in the open."
The witness accounts suggest that military authorities launched a reprisal attack with the conviction that the community was harboring the insurgents. HRW reports that some of the civilian witnesses said they saw soldiers setting fire to houses. A witness said: "I saw a group of soldiers throw explosive devices into houses. They would throw [the explosive] and then fire would come out of it. I saw them do this to about 10 houses."
The satellite images show extensive damage to the town caused by fires. While human rights groups say the extent of the damage suggests that the fires were intentionally set, the military authorities argued that many of the homes in the community were thatched and thus fire from a single source spreads readily. But HRW countered the argument, pointing out that many of the burnt structures were non-attached and that in the circumstances it was unlikely that detonation of rocket-propelled grenades or improvised explosive devices would ignite fire on the scale witnessed in Baga.
The Africa director at Human Rights Watch, Daniel Bekele, 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. 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."
He added: "The destruction and killings by soldiers in Baga are serious human rights violations. The government needs to investigate and prosecute the perpetrators, regardless of rank..."
PM reports that the leading opposition party in Nigeria, the ACN, has condemned the military action in Baga. ACN said it rejected the preliminary reports on the Baga massacre by the military and the National Emergency Management Authority (NEMA), pointing to he evidence furnished by satellite images. In a statement issued in Lagos on Thursday, its National Publicity Secretary, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, said the party wants an independent investigation.
A preliminary investigation by the military high command and NEMA had claimed that media reports of casualties and damage to civilian property were exaggerated. NEMA said it was able to identify only 32 fresh graves.
However, human rights groups say that the reports are part of an attempt to cover up the atrocities committed in Baga.
PM reports the Nigeria Bar Association, NBA, has also condemned the killing of civilians by Nigerian security operatives in Baga. The association stated that a situation in which soldiers called to protect lives and property kill civilians should not happen in any civilized society.
The BBC reports that the office of Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan said he regarded the conflict in Baga as "most regrettable and unfortunate." According to the statement, the president re-affirmed "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."
Many in the human rights community are skeptical of the government's promise to "fully investigate" the incident.
HRW's Bekele said: "There’s a tragic lack of accountability for atrocities with high body counts in Nigeria. The government needs to end this murderous cycle of violence by bringing all those responsible to justice.”
More about baga, Satellite imagery, Boko Haram, Nigerian army, Human rights watch
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