LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — Nigerian soldiers fired on unarmed Islamic Shiite children with no provocation in raids that killed hundreds of the minority group in the West African nation, Human Rights Watch said Wednesday.
The charges come as the guardian of Nigeria's estimated 80 million-plus Muslims, Sultan Muhammad Sa'ad Abubakar of Sokoto, warned the government against actions that could further radicalize Muslims in a country that already has lost 20,000 lives to the Boko Haram Islamic uprising.
Human Rights Watch said it doubts the Nigerian military's version that raids over three days on three Shiite locations in northern Zaria town followed an attempted assassination of the army chief.
Nigeria's military said the raids Dec. 12 through Dec. 14 came after Shiites tried to block the convoy of Gen. Tukur Buratai.
"It is almost impossible to see how a roadblock by angry young men could justify the killings of hundreds of people. At best it was a brutal overreaction and at worst it was a planned attack on the minority Shia group," said the Africa director of Human Rights Watch, Daniel Bekele.
The New York-based group said the army's version "just doesn't stack up."
As many as 1,000 people may have been killed, rights activists say, sparking protests in Nigeria's mainly Muslim north that spread to Tehran, the Iranian capital, and New Delhi in India.
Witnesses at the Husainniyah spiritual center said dozens of soldiers took up positions by the mosque at around midday on December 12, 2015, at least an hour before the army chief of staff was due to pass by, according to Human Rights Watch. Video footage shot by sect members and posted on YouTube appears to show soldiers calmly setting up before the shootings began.
Without provocation, the soldiers fired on people coming out of the mosque, initially killing five people and injuring others, including children attending classes at the center, according to Human Rights Watch, which said it interviewed many witnesses separately at locations in Kaduna and Zaria, on December 17 and 18.
A 14-year-old girl attending a math class in the mosque complex said that she was shot as she walked out of the center with other children, according to Human Rights Watch.
The Shiite group's leader, Iran-influenced Ibraheem Zakzaky who dresses like an ayatollah, suffered four bullet wounds, according to the family doctor, and is among scores detained.
Shiites wounded in the attacks are dying in military and police detention because they are being denied medical care, the Shiite Islamic Movement in Nigeria said Tuesday.
Kaduna state police Wednesday released 83 people including 34 children arrested in "the Zaria clash," according to Samuel Aruwan, spokesman for Gov. Nasir El-Rufai.
Another 191 suspects have been charged with offences including obstruction of highways, possession of weapons and attacking security agents, he said.
Ibrahim Musa, a spokesman for the Islamic Movement in Nigeria, charged Kaduna state government has taken over from the military in destroying property of the movement, estimated to have 3 million followers. A school and cemetery were bulldozed Monday, he said.
The leader of Nigeria's Muslims warned against violence targeting peaceful Muslims. "The history of the circumstances that engendered the outbreak of militant insurgency in the past, with cataclysmic consequences that Nigeria is yet to recover from, should not be allowed to repeat itself," Abubakar, president of the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, said Monday.
Boko Haram re-emerged as a much more violent entity after security forces attacked their mosque and compound and killed about 700 people in 2009 including leader Mohammed Yusuf, a breakaway follower of Zakzaky.