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Nigerian Air Force Belatedly Owns Up to Airstrike That Killed 39 Along Nasarawa-Benue Border

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HRW says although Nigerian authorities admitted carrying out the raid, they evaded “key questions” concerning the circumstances surrounding the attack.

The Nigerian Air Force has finally taken responsibility for the deadly airstrike on Kwatiri, a rural community in Nasarawa State, North-central Nigeria, after months of uncertainties about the identities of the attackers, a new report by the Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said.

The organisation, which investigates and reports on human rights abuses worldwide, said its investigations confirmed 39 persons were killed and six others injured in the airstrike that occurred on 24 January.

Latest media reports have indicated higher tolls resulting from the incident.

HRW, a not-for-profit organisation, said in a statement announcing the release of its new report on Tuesday that “Nigerian authorities have provided little information and no justice” with regard to the airstrike.

Although the authorities admitted carrying out the raid, the organisation said, they evaded “key questions” concerning the circumstances surrounding the attack.

The police in Nasarawa State had said 27 herders were killed in the airstrike.

They said their preliminary investigations revealed that the pastoralists had gone to Kwatiri, a border community between Benue and Nasarawa states, to pay fines for the release of their cattle seized by the Benue State Livestock Guards when they were str

Governor Abdullahi Sule of Nasarawa State, had exonerated the Nigerian Air Force from the attack. He said “no air force plane flew through the area,” adding that the bombing was carried out by an unidentified drone.

uck in the air raid.

The Livestock Guards is a security outfit in Benue State mandated to enforce the state’s Anti-Open Grazing Law. The law prohibits open grazing.

Governor Abdullahi Sule of Nasarawa State, had exonerated the Nigerian Air Force from the attack. He said “no air force plane flew through the area,” adding that the bombing was carried out by an unidentified drone.

But almost six months after the incident, the Nigerian air force admitted for the first time, in response to an enquiry from Human Rights Watch, to carrying out the airstrike, HRW said Tuesday.

According to the report, the Nigerian Air Force explained that it was an air component of its Operation Whirl Stroke – a joint operation involving military, police, and State Security Service – conducted in response to security problems in and around Nasarawa State.

The air force claimed that the airstrike was carried out in response to “suspected terrorist” activities but provided no details, the report released on Tuesday said.

How investigation was conducted

Disclosing how it arrived at its findings, Human Rights Watch said it interviewed dozens of victims of the massacre at Kwatiri.

“Between March 13 and 15, Human Rights Watch interviewed 12 people, including two survivors of the airstrike and seven family members of victims who were killed.”

The rights body further said it “reviewed and verified eight photographs showing some of the bodies and on March 14 visited a mass grave where 31 bodies were buried.”

Human Rights Watch said its enquiry revealed the victims of the air strike were “cattle herders and found no evidence that the targets of the airstrike had any link to bandit gangs or other armed groups.”

“The photos showed about 17 bodies with deep perforating injuries and ghastly wounds.”

Military’s response, ‘key questions’ unanswered

In response to the Human Rights Watch investigation, D.D Pwajok, an air commodore, on 17 May, admitted that the air force carried out the strike based “on credible intelligence and in synergy with other security forces and agencies in Nasarawa State.”

According to the military’s explanation, the air force surveillance footage showed the movement of “suspected terrorists” who converged around “a truck suspected to be a logistics vehicle,” which arrived at the location at night and was determined to be a target for the airstrike.

However, Human Rights Watch, said the military’s “letter did not respond to key questions, including how information regarding the suspected threat was considered and verified, whether efforts were made to investigate and verify the identity of those targeted, or if any assessment was carried out before the airstrike to avoid or mitigate civilian harm.”

The report added that the “absence of details raises the question of whether the air force carried out the airstrike based on mere suspicion.”

‘Unacceptable delay’, call for compensation

The body described the military’s delay in owning up to the killing is “unacceptable”, and called on for a full accountability for their actions.

“The military’s unacceptable delay in owning up to the killing and injuring dozens of civilians only compounds the tragedy of this shocking attack,” Anietie Ewang, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement released on Tuesday. “The Nigerian military should provide full accountability for their actions as well as financial compensation and livelihood assistance commensurate with the needs of the victims and their families.”

Catalogue of erroneous military airstrikes

Human Rights Watch detailed a series of erroneous airstrikes carried out by the Nigerian Air Force that have killed over 300 civilians in the last six years.

The military often claims the airstrikes were targeted at bandits and Boko Haram terrorists who have caused violence mainly in northeastern Nigeria.

In July 2017, a military airstrike on Ran IDP camp in Borno State, North-east Nigeria, killed scores of people.

The Defence Headquarters had blamed “lack of appropriate marking” for the air strike by the Nigerian Air Force on Ran.

In April 2019, an airstrike on Tangaram, a community in Zamfara State, North-west Nigeria, killed a little girl and left another injured.

In another instance, seven children were killed by an air strike around the Nigeria and Niger Republic border in February 2019.

Again, in April 2019, an air force jet killed six girls at Kurebe Community in the Shiroro area of Niger State, North-central Nigeria.

Similarly, in September 2021, the Nigerian Airforce, after an initial denial, eventually admitted bombing Buhari village in Yunusari Local Government Area of Yobe State where 10 people were killed and over 20 wounded.

But the Nasarawa State police command spokesperson, Ramhan Nansel, insisted on Wednesday that the Nigerian police had yet to ascertain those responsible for the airstrike.

“We have not been able to ascertain those responsible for the airstrike,” Mr Nansel, a deputy superintendent of police, told PREMIUM TIMES on Tuesday.

He added that the police were not aware if compensation had been paid to any victim of the incident.

On his part, the spokesperson for the Nigerian Air Force, Ayodele Famuyiwa, when asked about the compensation of the victims and their families on Tuesday, said he would not be available to comment until Thursday.

By Premium Times.

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