Soldiers gun down scores of civilians in Nigeria

Wednesday, October 24, 2001

Associated Press WriterABUJA, Nigeria (AP) -- Soldiers raided six villages in eastern Nigeria, razing homes and gunning down more than 100 civilians, apparently in revenge for the slaying of troops earlier this month, state officials said Wednesday.

Tahav Agerzu, spokesman for eastern Benue state government, accused the federal government and military of conducting "jungle justice." Defense officials in Abuja, Nigeria's capital, denied any involvement in the raids.

The attackers were apparently searching for gunmen who kidnapped and killed 19 soldiers earlier this month in Benue, where villagers have been waging a decade-long ethnic feud.

Uniformed soldiers traveling in armored personnel carriers rounded up civilians in Gbejir village on Monday, Agerzu said.

Women and children were separated from the group before the attackers opened fire on the men in a public square, he said.

The attacks, which continued into Tuesday, spread to Vaase, Anyiin, Iorja, Zaki-Biam and Tseadoor villages, close to where the mutilated bodies of 19 soldiers were found Oct. 12. Thousands of villagers reportedly fled into the bush.

Houses were burned to the ground and more than 100 people were killed, Agerzu said. The figure could not be independently verified.

"We are very disappointed that the federal government, as well as the military, could resort to jungle justice," Agerzu said.

Benue state authorities had apologized for the soldiers' deaths and promised to find those responsible, he added.

Defense officials denied the military was responsible for the attacks.

"We are supposed to protect Nigerians from any form of aggression, so I can assure you that the commander in chief has not issued instructions to go to any section of the country, or kill innocent civilians," defense spokesman Col. Ganiyu Adewule said.

He said the military would rely on police to arrest those responsible for killing the 19 soldiers.

The attacks started hours after President Olusegun Obasanjo vowed Monday to arrest and punish the killers. He spoke at a funeral for the soldiers in Abuja.

As word of the violence spread, frightened villagers grabbed what they could and fled into the bush.

State officials set up a temporary camp at Agasha, near the state capital of Makurdi, where they said about 200,000 people were seeking refuge Wednesday. Tens of thousands more people were believed stranded in the bush.

State authorities called the refugee situation "alarming" and appealed to international organizations for assistance.

The state governor met with security officials, and community leaders were summoned to a crisis meeting Thursday in Makurdi.

Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation, is riven with ethnic, religious and political divides that frequently flare into violence.

Tiv and Jukun tribal fighters have been battling since the early 1990s in Benue and neighboring Taraba states. Fulanis recently have been drawn into the conflict.

Nigerian newspapers compared the latest violence to a 1999 rampage, when security forces were accused of killing hundreds of people in the Niger Delta after a dozen policemen were slain.

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