At least 36 civilians attending a funeral ceremony were killed near the Niger-Nigeria border on Tuesday, when an unidentified plane apparently involved in operations against the Islamist militant group Boko Haram mounted an airstrike on the town of Abadam.
Now, a Nigerian security source has reportedly lent credence to the suspicions of officials in Niger — that the Nigerian military was responsible for the deadly error.
A Nigerian air force spokesman had previously denied any knowledge of the assault. But the security source told Reuters on Thursday that the plane was Nigerian and that its pilot had mistaken the mourning civilians for fleeing insurgents — a statement that will draw further opprobrium onto a military often scorned as ineffective and blunder-prone.
Niger's government announced on national television that three days of mourning would be held to pay homage to the 36 people killed and 27 wounded in the attack — a death toll given by the country's army.
Abadam is located on the Niger-Nigeria border, with a river splitting the town in two halves. Because of the porous border between the two countries, numerous Boko Haram militants are said to be based on the Niger side of Abadam. Only the northern side of the town — in Niger — was targeted in the attack, according to local officials.
The Islamist group, which has been waging a brutal insurgency in north-eastern Nigeria in a bid to carve out a caliphate, has increasingly been striking beyond Nigeria's borders, pulling neighboring countries into the swelling conflict. Both Chad and Niger have recently voted to send troops into Nigeria as part of a pan-regional offensive also involving Cameroon and Benin.
For months, residents have been fleeing Boko Haram assaults on the Nigerian part of Abadam, seeking refuge on the Niger side. Two weeks ago, Chadian troops succeeded in taking back control the Nigerian sector, but its inhabitants are yet to return.
Initially there was confusion over the source of the bombing. The armies of Chad and Niger have a heavy presence in the area — especially in Bosso, located six miles east of Abadam. Both forces have conducted air operations in the area to defeat Boko Haram, but say their planes were not near Abadam at any time on Tuesday, according to two local officials quoted by AFP.
Nigeria has not officially acknowledged responsibility for the civilian deaths. A spokesman for Nigeria's airforce, Dede Alonge, told AFP: "It's not to my knowledge and there has not been any report from our people of such an incident."
Youram Ari, Abadam's deputy mayor, said on Nigerien national television that two planes had flown over the town on Tuesday afternoon.
According to residents who spoke to Radio France International, the first plane launched a strike on the border town but did not make its target. The second plane, flying low, then carried out a second assault, hitting the mourners.
"At first we thought it was a blunder by Chad or Niger's army, but now we suspect the Nigerian army is responsible," said an elected official from Bosso in Niger.
Locals quickly focused on Nigeria as the source of the attack. "This was not a Chadian plane nor from Niger. Then, try to guess where it came from," a local told RFI.
"For me, with that very visible green color, they were from Nigeria," said the deputy mayor Youram Ari.
On Wednesday, the Nigerian army claimed to have killed 300 Boko Haram fighters during an operation which managed to recapture 11 towns and villages in Nigeria.
In a statement, it said: "A concerted air campaign by the Nigerian Air Force is ongoing in furtherance of the mission to clear terrorists from all their enclaves. The air strikes which today targeted the training camps and logistics dumps of the terrorists in Sambisa forests and parts of Gwoza have been highly successful as it achieved the aims with required precision.
"The death of a large number of terrorists has been recorded while many others are also scampering all over the forest and out of the struck bases. Details of casualty will be determined in subsequent phases of the operation."
Sally Hayden and Hannah Strange also contributed to this report.
Main image: A Nigerian Air Force Chengdu F-7 taking off. Image via Wikipedia Commons.
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