A Nigerian army drone strike accidentally killed at least 85 civilians observing a Muslim festival in the northwest on Sunday, the country’s armed forces have admitted.
Villagers in Tudun Biri in the state of Kaduna had gathered for the Maulud celebration when at about 9pm they heard what sounded like an aeroplane followed by a huge explosion.
“We couldn’t even run,” Danjuma Salisu, a survivor, said from his hospital bed, where he was being treated for hand and leg injuries.
According to local reports, villagers fled the area, fearing further strikes. Army officials and representatives from the Kaduna state government have met village elders, promising that those affected would be compensated.
The army said it had been carrying out “a routine mission against terrorists but inadvertently affected members of the community”. It did not give casualty figures or explain how the accident had happened but local residents said 85 people, many of them women and children, had been killed.
Idris Dahiru, a villager, said: “I was inside the house when the first bomb was dropped ... We rushed to the scene to help those affected and then a second bomb was dropped.
“My aunt, my brother’s wife and her six children, wives of my four brothers were among the dead. My elder brother’s family are all dead, except his infant child who survived. We buried 85 people that were killed in the bomb attack.”
Mr Dahiru said more than 60 injured people were in hospital.
Another resident, Husseini Ibrahim, told Agence France-Presse (AFP): “I lost 13 members of my immediate family among the 85 that were killed. They included my children and those of my brothers, seven boys and six girls. We buried the victims today.”
Many of the victims were women and children, Hassan Ma’aruf, another resident, told AFP, sharing images he said showed the bodies.
The national emergency management agency said in a statement: “The Northwest Zonal Office has received details from the local authorities that 85 dead bodies have so far been buried while search is still ongoing.”
The Nigerian presidency said: “President Tinubu describes the incident as very unfortunate, disturbing, and painful, expressing indignation and grief over the tragic loss of Nigerian lives.” He has ordered an investigation into what happened.
The Kaduna state governor, Uba Sani, said: “We are determined to prevent a repeat of this tragedy and reassure our people that their protection would be prioritised in the sustained fight against terrorists, bandits and other criminal elements.”
Nigeria’s armed forces regularly carry out air strikes on Boko Haram jihadists and militants fighting insurgencies in the north of the country. The northwest has recently overtaken the northeast as the bloodiest of several continuing conflicts in Africa’s most populous country.
While the jihadists in the northeast are motivated by religion as well as resources, those in the northwest have copied their tactics of mass kidnappings and raids without their ideology, taking over vast swathes of the region.
Mr Bola Tinubu has identified security as a priority of his government since taking the presidency in May, increasing defence spending to $4bn, 12% of this year’s budget. But he has said little about how he intends to improve performance, while analysts say budget increases in recent years have done little to quell the violence.
Nigerian military bombing raids have caused civilian casualties in the past. At least 20 fishers were killed and several injured in an attack in September 2021 in Kwatar Daban Masara on Lake Chad in the northeast, when the military mistook them for militants. In January 2017, at least 112 people were killed when a fighter jet struck a camp housing 40,000 people displaced by jihadist violence in the town of Rann near the border with Cameroon.
The Nigerian military blamed “lack of appropriate marking of the area” in a report six months later. Activists have said similar incidents to the latest have failed to be investigated in the past.
Nigeria’s armed forces are backed by powers including Britain and the US, which has raised concerns about human rights abuses. – Guardian