By Ibrahim Mshelizza
BAGA, Nigeria (Reuters) - Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan promised on Wednesday to punish any soldier found guilty of misconduct during a deadly raid on a suspected Islamist hideout after a rights group said satellite pictures had raised concerns of a cover-up.
Scores of houses were destroyed in the fishing village on the shores of Lake Chad raided by troops from Nigeria, Niger and Chad searching for Islamist militants, and there were 22 fresh graves, a Reuters reporter who visited said.
Residents said there were more graves in other areas but the military prevented journalists from reaching the alleged sites.
Nigerian forces have long been criticized over their heavy handed tactics against Boko Haram, a radical group fighting to revive an Islamic caliphate in religiously-mixed Nigeria that is seen as the main security threat to Africa's top oil producer.
But reports that close to 200 people may have died in one of the most violent clashes with the shadowy sect since it launched its uprising in 2009 have shocked Nigerians and prompted calls from politicians and human rights groups for an investigation.
Islamic scholar Madu Ibrahim said he was sitting in the courtyard of his thatched home when Nigerian soldiers came and set fire to it. Soon afterwards explosions went off and there was automatic gunfire from inside his neighbor's house.
"The soldiers told me to get out so I ran into the bush," he said, recounting the raid on April 16 on Baga.
For five days he hid, scavenging fruits in mangrove swamps before "returning to see what's left of Baga," he said, as he gestured towards the blackened husk of his mud-brick house.
"Many people died, including women and children," he said, adding that he had buried six of his neighbors.
In a rare statement admitting the possibility of abuses by his forces, Jonathan said: "Where any kind of misconduct is established, the federal government will not hesitate in ensuring that due sanctions are enforced and that justice is done."
Soldiers are seldom prosecuted for alleged abuses in the north, which rights groups say include summary executions and spraying people's homes with bullets.
Western powers, particularly the United States, are heaping pressure on Nigeria to punish soldiers' abuses, which they fear are driving enraged locals into the arms of violent Islamists seen as a growing threat to countries across the Sahel.
DISPUTED DEATH TOLL
Nigerian authorities argue civilians are killed in the crossfire because militants use them as human shields.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Wednesday satellite images revealed "massive destruction of civilian property" in Baga, undermining the army's claim that only 30 houses were destroyed.
There were 2,275 destroyed buildings, the watchdog said, urging Nigeria to investigate claims by community leaders that more than 180 died -- the military maintains a toll of 37.
"The glaring discrepancies between the facts on the ground and statements by senior military officials raise concerns that they tried to cover up military abuses," it said.
Nigeria Human Rights Commission head Anselm Odinkalu on Tuesday opened an investigation into what happened at Baga -- a rare move in more than three years of conflict.
On a media trip to Baga late on Tuesday, choreographed by the Nigerian military which had been blocking access to the site for several days, locals said there were more graves. The military declined to allow media access to other alleged sites.
A spokesman for Nigeria's emergency services coordinator, Manzo Ezekiel, said they had managed to confirm the existence of 32 individual graves but that villagers had not managed to produce any others -- apparently contradicting reports from an opposition senator from the north that he counted 228 graves. [ID:nL6N0DE0G3] The army has labeled that a gross exaggeration.
The Nigerian commander of the Baga raid Brigadier-General Austin Edokpayi said rocket propelled grenade fire by Boko Haram militants set Baga's houses ablaze, not the army.
"There are no fire fighters in this place," he added.
Whether by militants or the military, Aishatu Bukar fears someone killed her 13-year-old boy Abdullahi, who has been missing since they fled on the night of the Baga raid.
"We heard gunshots all over while houses burned," she said, while her grief-stricken friend, widowed Amina Yagambo, sat in the dirt rocking forward and crying out "Kumande!", or "Oh God!" in the local Kanuri language.
Jonathan's statement pledging to probe the killings admitted no wrongdoing, but promised to "end the intolerable threats to national security which have necessitated such confrontations."
(Additional reporting by Felix Onuah in Abuja; Writing and additional reporting by Tim Cocks in Lagos; editing by Philippa Fletcher)