Thursday, May 02, 2013

Nigeria: Deaths From Military Raid - Satellite Images, Witness Accounts Raise Concerns of Cover-Up

Source: Human Rights Watch

Satellite Images, Witness Accounts Raise Concerns of Cover-Up

(Johannesburg) – Satellite images reveal massive destruction of civilian property from a military raid on April 16 and 17, 2013, in the northern Nigerian town of Baga, undermining the military’s claim that only 30 houses were destroyed, Human Rights Watch said today. The Nigerian government should thoroughly and impartially investigate allegations that soldiers carried out widespread destruction and killing in the town.

Baga residents told Human Rights Watch that soldiers ransacked the town after the Boko Haram militant Islamist group attacked a military patrol, killing a soldier. Community leaders said that immediately after the attack they counted 2,000 burned homes and 183 bodies. Satellite images of the town analyzed by Human Rights Watch corroborate these accounts and identify 2,275 destroyed buildings, the vast majority likely residences, with another 125 severely damaged.

“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,” said Daniel Bekele [2], Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “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.”

Since the attack, the military has restricted journalists’ access to Baga, a remote fishing community on the shores of Lake Chad, 200 kilometers northeast of the city of Maiduguri. Boko Haram has destroyed mobile telephone towers in the area, claiming that security services used mobile phones to track down its members, making communication particularly difficult for survivors of the attack.

Human Rights Watch interviewed seven residents of Baga who fled the town on the night of the devastation. Many survivors spent several nights hiding in the bush and expressed fear in describing what they saw, fearing military retaliation.

Military officials publicly said that on the evening of April 16, Boko Haram attacked a military patrol in Baga, killing a soldier and wounding five others. Military reinforcements responded by engaging Boko Haram militants, whom the military said were armed with assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, and improvised explosive devices. There were running gun battles through the town, the military said.

In a statement released the week following the attack, Brig. Gen. Austin Edokpaye, the commander of the troops in Baga, asserted that “[c]ontrary to media speculation that hundreds of houses were burnt down, instead, it was the explosions from Boko Haram terrorists’” weapons that “triggered fire to about 30 thatched houses.”

Residents recalled hearing some explosions as well as gunfire on the night of the attack. Many fled the town. One resident, a 42-year-old-fisherman, told Human Rights Watch that while he was fleeing he saw two men in civilian clothes, whom he assumed were Boko Haram members because they were not in uniform, running while firing assault rifles. Residents said that, as they were fleeing the heavy gunfire, they saw bodies in the streets and in front of houses.

Some residents said that they saw soldiers in uniform kill residents and burn houses. A 27-year-old woman, who stayed in her house after the gunfire erupted, described to Human Rights Watch 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 had 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 area where the attacks took place, Borno State, is Boko Haram’s stronghold. Military officials have accused Borno State residents of harboring Boko Haram members. Boko Haram has killed numerous Borno State residents, including community leaders whom it accuses of helping authorities identify group members, which has created a climate of fear in the area.

There are conflicting accounts as to how many people were killed in the attack. A community leader who participated in the burial of victims told Human Rights Watch that 183 people were buried on April 18 in individual graves within two cemeteries. Other victims were also later buried, he said. The military called these figures “terribly inflated,” and in an April 22 statement, Edokpaye claimed that only 37 people were killed – 30 of them Boko Haram members. He said that only one soldier and six civilians died.

Senator Maina Lawan, the federal senator representing Baga, told Human Rights Watch, based on a two-day site visit on April 25 and 26, that some 220 people had been buried in three cemeteries, while six others had been buried in separate locations.

None of the residents interviewed by Human Rights Watch saw how the fires were started on the night of April 16, but they all described seeing parts of the town alight. Two residents who returned to the town the following morning, April 17, said they saw soldiers in military vehicles setting fire to houses.

“I saw a group of soldiers throw explosive devices into houses,” one of the residents, a farmer, recalled. “They would throw [the explosive] and then fire would come out of it. I saw them do this to about 10 houses.”

Satellite images analyzed by Human Rights Watch indicate that damaged structures were likely caused by intense and widespread fires. Additional satellite data detected the presence of active fires in the southern part of the town on the night of April 16 and during the day of April 17, consistent with witness accounts and the location of identified building damages.