ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Secretary of State John Kerry, who last week expressed concern about allegations of gross human rights violations by Nigerian forces fighting the Boko Haram Islamist sect, raised the issue with the country's president directly on Saturday, a U.S. official said.
Kerry sat beside Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan at an African Union dinner and discussed the matter privately much as he has raised it publicly, defending Nigeria's right "to combat terrorism but (saying) government security forces have to do so smartly (and) respect human rights," the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told reporters.
Nigerian troops last week used jets and helicopters to bombard targets in their biggest offensive since the Boko Haram group began a revolt almost four years ago to establish a breakaway Islamic state in the northeast of the country.
On May 17, Kerry took the unusual step of saying that he was "deeply concerned by credible allegations that Nigerian security forces are committing gross human rights violations, which, in turn, only escalate the violence and fuel extremism."
Boko Haram's four-year-long insurgency has killed about 3,000 people and the group has become the biggest security threat to Africa's top oil exporter and second largest economy.
In their biggest offensive since the insurgency began in 2009, Nigerian forces are trying to chase well-armed militants out of territory they control in remote semi-deserts around Lake Chad, along the borders with Cameroon, Chad and Niger.
"Boko Haram is a terrorist organization and they have killed wantonly and upset the normal governance of Nigeria in fundamental ways that are unacceptable and so we defend the right, completely, of the government of Nigeria to defend itself and to fight back against terrorists," Kerry said earlier at a news conference with Ethiopia's foreign minister.
"That said, I have raised the issue of human rights with the government, with the foreign minister. We have talked directly about the imperative of Nigerian troops adhering to the highest standards and not themselves engaging themselves in atrocities or in human rights violations. That is critical.
"One person's atrocity does not excuse another's."
Another U.S. official, speaking before Kerry met Jonathan, stressed the two countries have many common interests, including economics, peace-keeping and regional security, and said human rights were only one part of the conversation.
(Reporting By Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Bill Trott)