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Nigerian military says Kaduna civilians bombed with bandits to protect ‘key infrastructure’

The report from Defence Headquarters clashed with a previous claim of an army general, who blamed the strikes that killed over 126 villagers on a precision error by combat drones.

• December 5, 2023
Chief of Army Staff (COAS), Lt-General Taoreed Lagbaja [Photo Shettima]
Chief of Army Staff (COAS), Lt-General Taoreed Lagbaja [Photo Shettima]

In a remarkable change of official narrative, the Nigerian military on Tuesday said its aerial bombardment that left at least 126 killed in Kaduna on Sunday night was a calculated operation to take out bandits that inevitably involved civilian fatalities. 

Defence Headquarters spokesman Edward Buba said the military decided to engage after observing movements of bandits near an unnamed but “key infrastructure” in Ligarma Village at about 10:00 p.m. on Sunday, despite prior knowledge of the high prospect for civilian casualties.

“Aerial surveillance captured movement of groups of persons synonymous with the terrorist tactics and modus operandi,” Mr Buba said. “The observed advance of the terrorists that were gathered posted a threat to key infrastructure within reach of the ontoward activities.”

“Accordingly, the threat was eliminated to prevent the terrorists from unleashing terror on innocent civilians,” Mr Buba added, while accusing the villagers of harbouring sympathising with bandits. 

The statement from Defence Headquarters contradicted the initial claim of an army general in Kaduna, who told state officials on Monday that the airstrikes followed a precision error by combat drones deployed against armed bandits operating in the area. 

Kaduna government spokesman Samuel Aruwan said Valentine Okoro, a major-general leading the Nigerian Army 1 Division headquartered in Kaduna, had admitted at a meeting that the drone operators mistook the villagers for bandits, who have been terrorising the region. Those bombed had gathered for the Maulud celebration at about 9:00 p.m. Sunday, during which the army said terrorists were also suspected to be moving across the borders between Zamfara and Kaduna.

Yet the military headquarters in Abuja said the drone command observed the bandits mixed with villagers but dropped the bombs nonetheless.

“The NA UAV (Nigerian Army Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) detachment observed the movement of terrorists at Ligarma, a terrorist-infested area of Kaduna State,” he said. 

The DHQ did not say how many bandits were included in the death toll, which military sources placed at 126 as of Monday afternoon. Villagers maintained all the people killed were civilians.

President Bola Tinubu left Nigeria on November 29 for a global climate conference in Dubai, and his spokespersons have not issued a statement about the development, which has driven nationwide uproar. 

However, Mr Buba expressed regrets over civilian casualties and warned residents of hostile regions to be. 

The airstrikes marked the first public knowledge about the army’s use of unmanned bombers outside the Nigerian Air Force, which had long been associated with repeated bombings of civilians, all of which were promptly attributed to operational mistakes. It was not immediately clear how long the Nigerian Army has been using drones without the knowledge of the Nigerian Air Force, which said it did not conduct any operation in the affected area over the past 24 hours. 

“The NAF has not carried out any air operations within Kaduna State and environs in the last 24 hours,” Air Force spokesman Edward Gabkwet said in a statement to The Gazette. “Also, note that the NAF is not the only organisation operating combat armed drones in the North-Western region of Nigeria.”

In 2021, Peoples Gazette reported that the Nigerian Air Force Alpha jet, in an ariel attack on armed bandits in Niger State, mistakenly killed wedding guests. A similar bombing claimed over 100 civilians in January 2023.

Before then, the Nigerian Air Force, in an airstrike, killed some Nigerian soldiers, mistaking them for insurgents. A soldier in a video published by The Gazette was seen reporting the incident and called for help.

Read the Defence Headquarters’ full statement below: 

PRESS RELEASE ON AIR STRIKE ON LIGARMA VILLAGE  IN KADUNA STATE

1. On 3 Dec 2023, at about 2200hrs and based on ontoward activities by terrorist. The NA UAV detachment observed the movement of terrorists at Ligarma, a terrorist-infested area of Kaduna State. Aerial surveillance captured the movement of groups of persons synonymous with terrorist tactics and modus operandi.

2. The observed advance of the terrorists that was gathered posed a threat to key infrastructure within reach of the onward activities. Accordingly, the threat was eliminated to prevent the terrorists from unleashing terror on innocent civilians. 

3. It should be noted that terrorist often deliberately embed themselves within civilian population centres in order for the civilian population to bear the consequences of their atrocities. Nevertheless, the Nigerian military does its best at all times to distinguish between civilians and terrorists. 

4. The military views every civilian death in the cause of operations as a tragedy. Such tragedies are needless and unwanted that cause the armed forces to take measures to avoid them. 

4. One such measure taken by the military is to continually give precise instructions to communities. For instance, communities are to always alert troops of their activities, particularly when such a community is known to be infested with terrorist and their sympathisers. These instructions are intended to enable the military to distinguish between friendly and untoward activities.  

5. The armed forces will continue to operate consistent with international law as it always has done. It will also continue its determined and cautious progress in eradicating terrorists from our land.

6. These terrorists, as part of their tactics, disguise themselves as civilians to perpetrate terror.  Accordingly, they will continue to find innovative solutions to the challenges faced in the conduct of operations.

EDWARD BUBA

Major General

Director Defence Media Operations

December 5, 2023

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