KADUNA, Nigeria (AP) — Soldiers killed hundreds of Shiite Muslims this weekend after their group opened fire on the convoy of Nigeria's army chief, the Shia Islamic Movement and military reports said Monday. Other reports put the number of dead at about 20.
Shiite leader Ibraheem Zakzaky and his wife, Zeenah Ibrahim, are in military custody, Gov. Nasir El-Rufai of Kaduna state told The Associated Press. The movement had earlier reported that Zakzaky's wife was among the dead from the military raids in northern Zaria town, along with two of their sons and Zakzaky's deputy.
"They were arrested alive and are receiving medical attention," El-Rufai said in an email message that implied the couple may have been wounded.
Zeenah Ibrahim called AP early Sunday to report that soldiers were besieging her home in a "pre-planned attack to assassinate the sheikh." She said hundreds of Zakzaky's followers surrounded the house to protect the leader.
Witness Ojo Momodu said the Shiites barricaded the road with burning tires as Buratai approached and then stoned his convoy. Momodu said residents are frequently harassed by the Shiites' unlawful blocking of roads for processions.
Army spokesman Col. Sani Usman called the stoning of Gen. Tukur Buratai's convoy "a deliberate attempt to assassinate."
A report from the Nigerian Army Corps of Military Police said some Shiites were crawling through tall grass toward Buratai's vehicle "with the intent to attack the vehicle with (a) petrol bomb" while others "suddenly resorted to firing gunshots from the direction of the mosque." It said other Shiites were armed with swords and daggers. The report, marked "restricted," is dated Dec. 12 and said the incident began around 11:30 Saturday.
The military raids on Zakzaky's home and spiritual centers in two other areas in Zaria took place hours later and lasted into Sunday morning.
Ibrahim said the military has targeted the movement in the past, and last year killed three of her sons who had come home from studies in Beijing and Beirut for a religious procession.
Movement spokesman Ibrahim Musa said the military retaliated with "indiscriminate killing." His statement received Monday said, "The killing was so brutal at Gyallesu (one area of Zaria) that even those injured in the shooting were identified and killed in cold blood by the soldiers."
Reports from human rights activists and Nigerian newspapers said about 20 people were killed.
It was impossible to independently verify the toll as the military Monday continued a lockdown preventing access to the areas.
State Department spokesman John Kirby said the U.S. Embassy in Abuja was seeking more information about what happened, but added that details of the incident "are unclear at this point. He said the U.S. government will continue to make protection of civilians and respect for human rights "a priority in its ongoing engagement with the Nigerian government.
The Shiites two weeks ago suffered a suicide bombing by Boko Haram that killed 22 people. Boko Haram often attacks Muslims who oppose its radical vision of Islam.
In 2009, Nigerian armed forces attacked Boko Haram's headquarters and killed about 700 people, including its leader. The group re-emerged as a much more violent entity.
Faul reported from Lagos, Nigeria.