KANO, Nigeria, Apr 23 – Nigeria is to investigate its army’s conduct after clashes between troops and Islamist fighters in the northeast killed nearly 200 people, the single deadliest event since the insurgency began.
President Goodluck Jonathan ordered a “full-scale” probe late Monday as the Red Cross reported a death toll of 187, many of them civilians, with dozens more wounded, and one local resident accused troops of having gone on the rampage.
The investigation will determine whether or not the military complied with the established rules of engagement during the operation, said a statement from the president’s office.
Fierce fighting broke between troops and Islamist fighters in Baga, near the border with Chad, and a blaze there had destroyed nearly half of the town.
“So far 187 dead have been buried, while 77 are under admission in hospitals,” Red Cross Spokesman Nwakpa O. Nwakpa told AFP.
More than 300 houses in the fishing town on the shores of Lake Chad had been burnt down, he added.
They were still waiting for the military to give them full access to the town to care for the victims, he added.
Another rescue official who did not want to be named said “40 percent of the town has been gutted by fire”.
The bloodshed, which began Friday, has seen the most deaths in a single event since the insurgency of Boko Haram, the radical Islamist group blamed for scores of attacks in northern and central Nigeria since 2009.
Residents and officials said the dead included soldiers, insurgents as well as dozens of civilians.
Initial reports suggested that the fighting started when soldiers surrounded a mosque allegedly housing Islamist insurgents.
But a resident told AFP that the clashes began when Boko Haram gunmen attempted to burst into a “viewing centre” where locals watch football matches.
As people started to flee, the militants opened fire.
Troops engaged the gunmen but had to withdraw under fire from insurgents, who were heavily armed. Some resident said the militants were armed with rocket propelled grenades.
But the troops later returned in greater numbers.
They then “went on a shooting spree and set homes on fire,” said the resident, who did not want to be named.
“They opened fire on anybody within sight. Women, children and the elderly were not spared”, the resident added.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement that he was “shocked and saddened at the reports of high numbers of civilians killed”.
Washington also condemned the violence and the deaths of many civilians.
“We support the Nigerian authorities in their efforts to bring the perpetrators of violent acts to justice, and stress the importance of respecting human rights and protecting civilians in all security responses,” said State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell.
Baga lies in Borno state, the home base of Boko Haram, but the town had not previously seen heavy fighting.
The Islamists have mainly been concentrated in the state capital Maiduguri, but scores of militants have reportedly fled to remote corners of the state following a crackdown by security forces in the city.
Rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have accused Nigerian soldiers of massive abuses in operations against Boko Haram, including summary executions, allegations the army has denied.
Boko Haram has said it is fighting to create an Islamic state in Nigeria’s mainly Muslim north, but the group’s demands have shifted repeatedly.
The conflict in Africa’s most populous country and top oil producer is estimated to have left about 3,000 people dead since 2009.
Before the violence in Baga, the deadliest day in the Boko Haram crisis came in January last year, when at least 185 people were killed in coordinated attacks in the city of Kano.
Facing mounting political pressure over his inability to end the violence, Jonathan set up a panel last week to study how an amnesty could be offered to the sect.
It is unclear however whether the group is open to an amnesty deal.