Lagos (AFP) – Amnesty International on Friday claimed the Nigerian military shot dead unarmed civilians before a march to mark the anniversary of the 1967 Biafran declaration of independence.
But the army rejected the claims, accusing pro-Biafran protesters of being armed, violent and carrying out “wanton destruction” and “a number of unimaginable atrocities”.
Police have said at least 10 people were killed — five in the town of Onitsha, Anambra state, and five in Asaba, in neighbouring Delta state — in violence linked to the commemoration on May 30.
The Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) movement, which has revived calls for an independent homeland for the Igbo people in southeast Nigeria, claimed at least 35 were killed.
Amnesty said it was unclear exactly how many people lost their lives, as soldiers — who the army says acted in self-defence — took away the dead and injured.
The human rights organisation said that based on visits to hospitals and mortuaries at least 17 were killed and nearly 50 injured in Onitsha alone.
“The real number is likely to be higher,” it added in a statement, saying some of the dead and injured seen by researchers had been shot in the back, indicating they were fleeing at the time.
“Opening fire on peaceful IPOB supporters and bystanders, who clearly posed no threat to anyone is an outrageous use of unnecessary and excessive force,” said Amnesty’s Nigeria director, MK Ibrahim.
One person was shot dead while sleeping, he added.
– Tear gas, live bullets –
IPOB has staged regular demonstrations across the southeast since the arrest in October last year of its leader, Nnamdi Kanu, who has been charged with “treasonable felony” and is awaiting trial.
Kanu, who is also head of the banned Radio Biafra, is accused of calling for a separate republic of Biafra, nearly 50 years after a previous declaration of independence sparked a civil war.
The fighting between 1967 and 1970 left more than one million people dead, most of them from starvation and disease, as the Igbo nation was blockaded into submission.
The May 30 protests were to commemorate the 49th anniversary of the independence declaration.
Army spokesman Colonel Ha Gambo said the protestors killed two Nigerian policemen, wounded several soldiers and burnt a police vehicle.
– ‘Worrying pattern’ –
Amnesty, which said it had spoken to 32 eye-witnesses in Onitsha, said it could not substantiate the police deaths and had seen “no evidence” the security services acted in self-defence.
IPOB maintained the protesters were unarmed and one man interviewed said he threw stones but the military and police fired back teargas then used live ammunition.
Another said soldiers stormed a church where protesters were sleeping the night before the march and let off teargas, while another said he saw a young boy shot dead as he had his hands up.
Gambo said: “Wanton destruction of lives and properties were brazenly carried out by the protesters who employed firearms, crude weapons as well as other volatile cocktails such as acid and dynamites.”
He also accused Amnesty of a “campaign of calumny” against the military.
But Amnesty’s report echoes multiple claims about the tactics of armed police and soldiers made by protesters who attended three previous IPOB demonstrations from November to February.
Group members told AFP last month that injured and dead protestors were carted away and dumped in mass graves while others disappeared.
“This is not the first time that IPOB supporters have died at the hands of the military,” Ibrahim said.
“It is becoming a worrying pattern and this incident and others must be immediately investigated,” he said, calling for an end to “the pattern of increased militarisation of crowd control”
Human rights groups have previously highlighted similar claims against the military in December last year, when at least 350 Shiite Muslim protesters were killed in the northern city of Zaria.
The military has also been accused of a catalogue of abuses against civilians during Boko Haram’s Islamist insurgency in the northeast.
On Biafra, President Muhammadu Buhari has said he “will not tolerate” threats to Nigeria’s unity.