Nigerian soldiers were accused of meting out "jungle justice'' when they allegedly gunned down more than 100 villagers in the eastern Benue state.
The reported massacre in the same six villages where 19 soldiers were kidnapped and killed earlier this month, was denied by federal defence officials. But eyewitnesses in Gbejir village told journalists that uniformed soldiers rounded up men on Monday and shot them in a public square.
The "sweep'' continued on Tuesday in Vaase, Anyiin, Iorja, Zaki-Biam and Tseadoor – villages close to where the mutilated bodies of 19 soldiers were found on 12 October, according to a Benue state government spokesman, Tahav Agerzu.
The incident is now a test for President Olesegun Obasanjo, a former military dictator who became civilian leader of Africa's most populous country after an election in 1999.
The root of the trouble dates back at least 20 years and centres on business rivalries between ethnic groups. Tiv and Jukun tribal fighters have been battling since the early 1990s in Benue and neighbouring Taraba state. Fulani herdsmen have also joined the conflict over trading and grazing access.
Mr Agerzu claimed that more than 100 people have been killed this week – principally by men in uniform – and that dozens of homes had been burnt down. "We are very disappointed that [President Obasanjo's] federal government, as well as the military, could resort to jungle justice,'' he said yesterday.
Colonel Ganiyu Adewule, a Ministry of Defence spokesman, said: "We are supposed to protect Nigerians from any form of aggression so I can assure you that the commander-in-chief has not issued instructions to go to any section of the country to kill innocent civilians. The military authorities will use the police to carry out the arrest of those responsible for the killing of 19 soldiers.''
Last night, Benue state officials said news of the violence had spread far and wide and that they had established a camp at Agasha, near the state capital, Makurdi. They claimed 200,000 people had sought refuge there by last night.
Local officials suggest the 19 dead soldiers were mistaken for ethnic combatants, who often wear military uniform.
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