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Nigerian Soldiers Fired on Shia Children in 'Unjustified' Attack, Says Human Rights Group

The Nigerian army might have been responsible for mass atrocities in the country's Muslim-majority north.
December 23, 2015, 5:30pm
Imagen por Jossy Ola/AP

Tens of thousands of Nigerians, including children, have been subject to brutal attacks and killings and millions more have been deprived of basic human rights by both Boko Haram and the government fighting to curb the Islamist extremist group, two international human rights groups said this week.

20,000 people have lost their lives since Boko Haram began an armed rebellion against the Nigerian government six years ago. While the anti-Western group took thousands of lives in massacres at schools, suicide bombings, and mass shootings, the Nigerian military has also been responsible for deaths and abuses, according to a report from Human Rights Watch.

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The latest report indicates the Nigerian military has not limited its action to eradicating Boko Haram, but also stamps out any perceived threat. The report found that over three days between December 12 and 14, Nigerian soldiers conducted raids on three locations in Zaria, a town in the north, during which they killed as many as 1,000 Shia Muslims and even fired on children. (Most Nigerian Muslims are Sunni; Shia are a minority within the majority-Muslim north. People in the South are largely Christian or follow traditional faiths.)

The attack came after the army claimed the Shia group Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) tried to assassinate Army General Tukur Buratai.

HRW is not convinced that IMN was behind the attack and said the military's response was "wholly unjustified."

"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 HRW's Africa director, Daniel Bekele.

The home-grown Boko Haram is Sunni, and pledged allegiance to the Sunni militant group the Islamic State in March.

Nigerian Shia are mostly followers of IMN's leader Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky, who was inspired by the 1979 Islamic revolution in majority-Shia Iran led by the late Ayatollah Khomeini. IMN has aimed to establish an Islamic Republic in the Kaduna state, located north of the capital Abuja.

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Roughly 40 percent of Nigerians are Christians.

Related: Dozens Killed As the Nigerian Army Raids Shia Sect Inspired by the Iranian Revolution

One of the attacks carried out by the Nigerian military in December was at a mosque. Witnesses told HRW that soldiers began firing at people as they walked out of the place of worship, apparently unprovoked. Some of them were children attending classes at the mosque complex.

A separate attack was conducted on Zakzaky's home. He suffered four bullet wounds in the shooting, his family said.

A previous investigation in June by Amnesty International revealed that more than 7,000 young men and boys have died in military detention since March 2011, while at least 1,200 people have been unlawfully killed since February 2012. Amnesty says it interviewed more than 400 Nigerians for the report, including eyewitnesses, victims, and senior members of the military.

The military's occasionally disorganized and erratic reaction to the Boko Haram threat has led to the arrests of at least 20,000 people, mostly young men and boys, since 2009, with some as young as nine years old. Torture and ill treatment are common, according to the research, while food, water, and medical treatment are regularly denied to the incarcerated.

The latest HRW report comes a day after the United Nations announced that the Boko Haram insurgency has forced more than 1 million children out of school, and forced nearly 2,000 schools to close in Nigeria and neighboring countries.

"The conflict has been a huge blow for education in the region, and violence has kept many children out of the classroom for more than a year, putting them at risk of dropping out of school altogether," Manuel Fontaine, UNICEF's West and Central Africa Regional Director, told the AP.

The agency said that at least 600 teachers had been killed in the violence, and that some schools have been looted or set on fire by the militant group.

Keeping the children away from school also means they face a greater risk of abuse, abduction or recruitment by armed groups, the agency said.