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Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Baga: Rights group alleges ‘cover up’



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SATELLITE images, showing massive destruction in Baga, a border community about 180 kilometres north of Maiduguri, Borno State yesterday stirred a fresh controversy over the actual number of deaths in the clash between the Multinational Joint Task Force (MJTF) and Boko Haram insurgents.

A statement released yesterday by Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the images recorded before and after the Baga battle contradicted the preliminary reports submitted to President Goodluck Jonathan on Tuesday by the Defence Headquarters (DHQ) and the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) .

In the reports, the DHQ claimed that only 37 persons (a soldier and 36 Boko Haram members) died in the gunfight between the MJTF troops and insurgents in the fishing community on April 16.

Villagers claimed that more than 185 residents – mostly women and children – were killed in the crossfire. They also alleged that about 3000 houses were destroyed.

But in a statement, HRW’s African Director Daniel Bekele suspected that the military “tried to cover up” abuses in the preliminary reports and, therefore, asked the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate.

The clashes between soldiers and Boko Haram insurgents sparked massive fires that left nearly half of the town destroyed.

The Red Cross said that 187 people were killed in the fighting. The Senator representing Borno North in the upper chamber of the National Assembly, Maina Lawan, put the death toll at 228.

The military has pushed back aggressively against these reports and fiercely denied claims that soldiers fired on civilians or deliberately torched houses.

After Tuesday’s parley with the military leadership tasked with probing the carnage, President Goodluck Jonathan said “there is a lot of misinformation being peddled about the situation.”

He said the reported death toll “cannot be substantiated”, concluding that it was impossible that more than 1,000 homes were destroyed.

The HRW disagreed with the military claims in a statement it issued yesterday.

“Satellite images of the town analysed by Human Rights Watch…identify 2,275 destroyed buildings, the vast majority likely residences, with another 125 severely damaged,” the rights’ group said in the statement.

On its website, it posted images depicting aerial shots of the town on April 6 against those of the same neighbourhoods on April 26, 10 days after the clashes.

The before-and-after images appear to show scores of newly burnt buildings.

“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,” the group added.

HRW called on the ICC to probe the events in Baga as part of the preliminary investigation the court launched in 2010.

The group had previously said that Nigeria’s military may have committed crimes against humanity in campaigns against Boko Haram since the group launched its attacks in 2009.

It said: “The incident in Baga should be added to the prosecutor’s preliminary investigation.”

It also offered a new death toll for the Boko Haram conflict, saying 3,600 people have died since 2009, including killings by the security forces.

Bekele said a community leader, who claimed to have participated in the burial of victims, admitted that he counted 183 bodies.

The group also expressed concern that access to Baga remained difficult.

The HRW said: “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 analysed 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 on April 17, consistent with witness accounts and the location of identified damaged buildings.

The HRW said: “Because of the number of buildings destroyed by fire as well as their distribution across large sections of the town, Human Rights Watch believes that such fires were intentionally set and not inadvertently sparked by the detonation of rocket-propelled grenades or improvised explosive devices.

“Such weapons could not ignite fires on such a wide scale, nor could they set fire to non-attached structures. Small arms and light weapons do not contain the amount of explosive or incendiary material to produce such a scale of damage.”

It also admitted that Baga is a stronghold of Boko Haram

Source: Nation

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