An international rights crusader, Human Rights Watch, on Wednesday described as hogwash, military’s claim that the fires that razed thousands of buildings in Baga, Borno State were caused by rocket-propelled grenades fired by members of the Islamist militant group, Boko Haram.
HRW, in a statement on its website, said satellite images showed that soldiers may have set the fires that razed down “2,275 buildings and left 125 others” in the town severely damaged.
Calling on the Federal Government to impartially probe the incident, it said that the military was covering up something going by the fact that it had vehemently refused to allow journalists access into the troubled community.
There had been reports that 187 persons were killed and about 2,000 houses torched during the April 16, 2013 clash.
President Goodluck Jonathan had last week directed the Defence Headquarters and the National Emergency Management Agency to investigate the incident. Both organisations submitted their preliminary reports to the President on Monday.
According to a statement by the Special Adviser to the President (Media and Publicity), Dr. Reuben Abati, DHQ’s findings showed that 30 terrorists were killed during the crisis.It also said that six bodies were recovered in Lake Chad about three kilometres from the action spot.
In its report, NEMA stated that a number of buildings and business premises were destroyed in Baga. It claimed that the total number of houses in the community was far less than 1,000.
But the HRW, in the statement by its Africa Director, Daniel Bekele, said that the area damaged by fires measured about 80,000 sq2.
Stating that the fires were detected by the MODIS sensor aboard NASA satellites Aqua and Terra, the rights organisation said its findings corroborated claims by the residents that 2,000 houses and 183 bodies were burnt during the mayhem.
The group said, “Because of the number of buildings destroyed as well as their distribution across large sections of the town, we believe 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 fires 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.”
“Baga residents told HRW that soldiers ransacked their 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 of the town analysed by HRW corroborate these accounts and identify 2,275 destroyed buildings, the vast majority likely residences, with another 125 severely damaged.”
The group stated that the damage was widely distributed across the southern half of Baga, with multiple clusters of near total building destruction measuring approximately eight hectares in total area.
It said, “Virtually all identified buildings damaged exhibit signatures fully consistent with fire, including the presence of burn scars, destroyed trees as well as intact load-bearing walls without a roof. Further, damage matches the spatial extent of satellite-detected active fire zones recorded on the night of April 16 and the afternoon of April 17, 2013 strongly suggesting identified buildings damage occurred during this period.
“It is likely that a small percentage of destroyed or severely damaged buildings have not been identified because of tree cover;Total buildings damaged are therefore likely to be higher.”
The HRW said that the discrepancies between the facts on the ground and statements by the military raised concerns of cover-up of abuses by troops.
The group added, “Since the attack, the military has restricted journalists’ access to Baga, a remote fishing community on the shores of Lake Chad, 200 kilometres northeast of the city of Maiduguri.
“Boko Haram has destroyed mobile telephone towers in the area, claiming that security services used mobile phones to track down its members, making communication particularly difficult for survivors of the attack.
“The Nigerian military has a duty to protect itself and the population from Boko Haram attacks, but the evidence indicates that it engaged more in destruction than in protection.”
When contacted, the Director of Defence Information, Brig.-Gen Chris Olukolade, said that the claims by the HRW were unfair and untrue.
Olukolade said that a group of foreign jornalists who requested the JTF to escort them to Baga got positive response.
He said that the foreign journalists could not go to Baga because they were scared of plying the road leading to Baga due to the activities of Boko Haram.
He added that it was a surprise that the HRW could turn round to accuse the military of blocking access to Baga.
Olukolade said, “First of all, I want to say that we stand by the report of the DHQ to the President until it is reasonably and fairly proved otherwise.
“On the allegation by the HRW, I think it is an unfair comment on their part. As I am talking to you, a number of foreign journalists who came into the country requested to be escorted there and the JTF escorted them there. We are suprised that they are turning round to accuse us.
“Did anybody stop them from going there? Why did they not excercise their freedom of movement if they were comfortable with the activities of the Boko Haram?
NEMA’s Press Officer, Ezekiel Manzo, told our correspondent on the telephone that he could not confirm the exact number of destroyed houses identified by a NEMA team that visited Baga.
He said that the team was still in the town trying to assist the displaced residents.
Manzo said, “Our team is still in Baga town where they are setting up camp to cater for the displaced residents; you know we are concerned about the welfare of the displaced people.
“I don’t have the number of houses destroyed during the incident, but I will get the figure when I resume work tomorrow (Today).”
Source: PUNCH NIGERIA.
BY ADELANI ADEPEGBA, ABUJA