LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — Residents in Nigeria's northeast accused the military of burning down civilian homes in a recent fight with Islamic extremists that left at least 187 people dead, the latest in a series of incidents which authorities have been blamed for the killing of bystanders.
In separate incidents in 1999 and 2001, soldiers in Nigeria shelled villages, opened fire on residents and tortured civilians. While the military has denied abuse allegations surrounding the recent killings in Baga, the West African nation has a history of security forces indiscriminately killing civilians since it became an uneasy democracy after years of military rule.
And as officials hope to woo extremists into possible peace talks, the deaths of civilians and harassment by soldiers could likely betray its efforts. The government often claims its force is used only to combat the extremists, or criminals.
"You and I know nowadays the 'Boko Haram syndrome:' Anybody put in the public space as allegedly being killed in the course of fire as suspected Boko Haram persons, most members of the public will not fear it much," said Kemi Okenyodo, the executive director of the CLEEN Foundation, which monitors police and security forces in Nigeria. "Any crime that the public is strongly against it, it is easy to be used as a fluke for extrajudicial killings."
Government officials could not offer a breakdown of civilian, soldier and extremist deaths from Friday's fighting. Many of the bodies had been burned beyond recognition in fires that razed whole sections of the town, residents said. Those killed were buried as soon as possible, following local Muslim tradition.
Authorities also provide contradictory explanations about what really happened, as the military bans access for outside observers to an area officials want to describe as an insurgent stronghold.
Boko Haram members used heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades in the assault, which Brig. Gen. Austin Edokpaye said began after soldiers surrounded a mosque they believed was housing Boko Haram members. Extremists earlier had killed a military officer, officials said.
The fighting lasted for hours and the military said extremists used civilians as human shields— implying that soldiers opened fire in neighborhoods where they knew civilians lived. However, local residents who spoke to an Associated Press journalist who accompanied the state officials said soldiers purposefully set the fires during the attack.
Brig. Gen. Chris Olukolade, a military spokesman, on Tuesday declined to immediately answer other questions about the military's conduct and other issues surrounding the killings.
By the time Borno state officials could reach the city Sunday, a local government official said at least 185 people were killed, something not disputed by Edokpaye who accompanied officials on the visit. A spokesman for the Nigerian Red Cross said Monday that at least 187 people had been killed, while another 77 were receiving medical treatment.
A statement issued Tuesday by Edokpaye said only six civilians died in the fighting Friday, as well as one soldier and some 30 extremists. The brigadier general also claimed extremist fighters used "anti-aircraft guns" in the attack, arms never seen used before in the three-year-old insurgency. The statement also said the fighting occurred on April 16 — three days before the violence actually happened.
Nigeria's presidency has said the death toll "may be grossly exaggerated," but federal lawmakers have started their own investigations into the killings.
While Nigerian forces have served as peacekeepers in other African conflicts, many in the country remain fearful of soldiers. Nigerian media regularly reports on incidents where soldiers beat civilians in traffic or fight police officers in their own country.
"Fighting in a built-up area is a very difficult operation, but that notwithstanding, there must be standard rules of engagement," Senate President David Mark said Tuesday. "Those rules of engagement would not include mass killings, or extrajudicial killings, in any form."
But extrajudicial killings routinely occur in Nigeria, with police routinely shooting dead suspected "armed robbers," human rights activists say. That same mentality, a hangover from the military era when soldiers would routinely shoot dead prisoners on the then-swampy beaches of Victoria Island in Lagos, persists today.
Speaking Wednesday, President Goodluck Jonathan promised any soldier or security force member found committing such crimes would be "cautioned and treated in line with our own laws and regulations." But the nation's courts routinely drag out cases and such prosecutions remain rarer still.
"The problem of extrajudicial executions in Nigeria is closely linked to the remarkable inadequacies of almost all levels of the Nigerian criminal justice system," a United Nations report in 2006 on the killings said. The same report described how soldiers often operate without any rules of engagement when facing a civilian population.
There are several major cases in Nigeria's recent history of soldier abuses. In 2001, the military attacked some seven villages in Benue state following ethnic Tiv militants killing soldiers there. Witnesses said some 200 people died in the fighting that saw soldiers ransack villages, shell houses and gun down residents indiscriminately. In 1999, ethnic Ijaw activists claimed more than 200 civilians were killed by the military in Odi in Bayelsa state following the killings of police officers there.
A military raid in Nigeria's oil-rich Delta state in 2010 against militants there killed some 150 people, activists said, though soldiers blocked AP journalists from reaching the area at the time. And in October 2012, when extremists killed a military officer in Maiduguri, soldiers killed at least 30 civilians and set fires across a neighborhood in retaliation. The military later denied committing the abuses.
"In such incidents it is assumed by officials that the armed forces acted in 'self-defense' or were otherwise justified in carrying out retaliatory executions of civilians," the 2006 U.N. report reads. "Thus, although the intentional killing of unarmed civilians, whether in situations of armed conflict or otherwise, is a clear violation of both international and Nigerian law, impunity is the reality."
And despite Nigeria's presidency promising an investigation into the Baga killings, the same may continue to happen today.
"There is a consistent pattern in responding to these incidents," the U.N. said. "Major human rights violations are alleged; the authorities announce an inquiry; and either the resulting reports are not published, or the recommendations are ignored."
Associated Press writer Haruna Umar in Maiduguri, Nigeria, and Bashir Adigun in Abuja, Nigeria, contributed to this report.
Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP .