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Wednesday, 24 October, 2001, 11:53 GMT 12:53 UK
Nigeria massacres blamed on soldiers
Nigerian soldiers
Nigeria's army has a reputation for heavyhandedness
A Nigerian regional official has said that it was soldiers who shot dead more than 100 villagers this week in a remote part of the country in reprisals for the deaths of their comrades.

As he spoke, reports came in of fresh violence on Wednesday in one of the villages caught up in the unrest.

I have never been so shocked

General Victor Malu
Former Nigerian army chief

The Nigerian army has denied being involved, and police in the region say only that they are still investigating.

Eyewitnesses earlier spoke of at least 200 people being summarily executed in the villages of Anyiin, Gbeji, Zaki-Bian and Vaase, on the border between Benue and Taraba states.

The regional government official, who spoke to the French news agency AFP, said soldiers had gone on the rampage to avenge the killing of 19 comrades by tribesmen on 12 October.

"Over 100 people have been killed since Monday evening," he said.

Fresh attack

A regional official named as Shima Ayati, special adviser to the state governor of Benue, said unidentified attackers were back in Zaki-Bian on Wednesday to destroy property in the now largely deserted village.

"They say people have visited Zaki-Bian again to do a total levelling," he told Reuters news agency by telephone from the state capital Mukardi.

The agency earlier quoted refugees arriving in Makurdi as saying soldiers had descended on the villages on Monday, rounding up menfolk, then shooting and setting them on fire.

Nigeria map

"I was hiding in the bush very nearby," said one farmer.

"That's where I saw everything. I would not move. I would not even shake because they were shooting at where the grass shook."

A former Nigerian army chief, General Victor Malu, who comes from the area, said armed men had burst into his own home and killed four of his household before burning down neighbouring houses.

Echoes of past attack

A spokeswoman for the Benue State governor said he is calling on President Olusegun Obasanjo to withdraw troops from the region, after they were sent to track down the killers of the 19 soldiers.

The soldiers were found hacked to death after they were sent to quell violence between two local tribes, the Tivs and Jukuns.

They were buried with full military honours in the federal capital Abuja on Monday - the same day as the massacres began.

President Olusegun Obasanjo
Obasanjo will need to take action, if the army proves to have been involved

The BBC's Lagos correspondent Dan Isaacs says that the Benue killings recall an earlier massare in November 1999, when troops were sent to the Delta town of Odi to quell unrest after the murder of a number of policemen.

In the operation, several soldiers were reported killed.

Troops then razed the town to the ground and left dozens of civilians dead.

General Malu, at that time head of the army, said his men had been forced to act in self-defence.

The BBC correspondent says that if President Obasanjo does not take firm action to condemn the latest attacks, he could face severe criticism at home and abroad.

The BBC's Dan Isaacs
"The eyewitness described seeing many dead bodies"
See also:

28 Jun 01 | Africa
Villagers 'massacred' in Nigeria
29 May 99 | Africa
Profile: Olusegun Obasanjo
07 Sep 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Nigeria
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