Nigerian troops killed more than 300 Shiite Muslims, including children, in December in the country's northern region, allegedly burning some of the victims alive, according to a report from Amnesty International.
The military is being accused by the human rights group of trying to cover up the unlawful killings of members of Islamic Movement of Nigeria, which took place in city of Zaria over a two-day period spanning from December 12 to 14 of last year.
"It was dark and from far I could only see a big mound, but when I got closer I saw it was a huge pile of corpses on top of each other," one witness said, describing the scene at the hospital morgue following the clashes, according to the report released on Friday. "I have never seen so many dead bodies. I got very scared and run away. It was a terrible sight and I can't get it out of my mind."
As news of the incident emerged, Nigerian authorities said they were pushed into action after individuals linked to IMN, some of whom were carrying weapons, tried to kill the chief of army staff as his convoy drove through town in a convoy. A majority of Nigeria's muslims are Sunni, with IMN being one of the more well known exceptions. The group is led by Ibrahim al-Zakzaky, who is said to draw religious inspiration from one of the world's most well-known Shiite Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, the deceased leader of the Iranian revolution.
Following the alleged convoy attack, the army raided several locations where IMN supporters were located, including a medical facility, their headquarters, and Zakzaky's compound. Witness reports gathered by Amnesty indicate that soldiers fired indiscriminately, killing men, women, and young children. Grenades were reportedly launched at the compound, while military forces allegedly shot at people in the medical facility, before setting it on fire, leaving many injured people left to die.
"Those who were badly injured and could not escape were burned alive," a man named Yusuf told Amnesty. He was shot several times.
"I managed to get away from the fire by crawling on my knees until I reached a nearby house where I was able to hide until the following day," he said. "I don't know how many of the wounded were burned to death. Tens and tens of them."
The official death toll was set at about 60 in December, but witness accounts indicate as many as 350 people could have been killed. Zakzaky and his wife were arrested during the raid, and initial reports indicated one of his sons was killed.
Witnesses said they saw bodies piled up at the morgue and throughout the compound, but Amnesty alleges that the government tried to cover it up by blocking access to the compound after the incident and carting bodies away. The organization said it analyzed satellite imagery to conclude that there had been changes made to the ground in the area that could indicate the presence of a mass grave.
"The true horror of what happened over those two days in Zaria is only now coming to light. Bodies were left littered in the streets and piled outside the mortuary. Some of the injured were burned alive," said Netsanet Belay, Amnesty's Research and Advocacy Director for Africa.
The report released on Friday follows the organization's attempt to urge the government to investigate the issue, a call sparked by a state official who said the bodies of 347 people had been put into mass graves.
A Nigerian army spokesperson slammed the report for "lacking objectivity" and credibility, according to the BBC and Reuters.
"It is a hasty, one-sided and biased report aimed at arriving at a predetermined objective," he said, according to Reuters. "They must allow the inquiry and all other relevant agencies to complete and submit their reports before jumping to conclusions."
This is not the first time Zakzaky's IMN has clashed with government forces. A similar altercation between the sect and the army occurred last year during a pilgrim procession. Zakzaky said that 30 followers and three of his sons were killed. At the end of November, more than 20 IMN members died in a bombing attack carried out during a pilgrimage. Some claim Boko Haram, the home-grown Islamist extremist group entrenched in the north, was behind the violence, while Zakzaky has refuted this allegation.