Dozens killed after Nigerian army drone strike hits villagers

By Patrick Markey with Aminu Abubakar in Kano
Nigeria The drone strike hit villagers celebrating a Muslim festival in the northwest Kaduna State.  By CRISTINA ALDEHUELA AFPFile
DEC 5, 2023 LISTEN
The drone strike hit villagers celebrating a Muslim festival in the northwest Kaduna State. By CRISTINA ALDEHUELA (AFP/File)

A Nigerian army drone targeting armed groups killed at least 85 civilians by mistake in northwest Kaduna State, causing outrage over one of the country's deadliest military bombing accidents.

Calling the incident "disturbing", President Bola Ahmed Tinubu on Tuesday ordered an investigation after the army acknowledged one of its drones mistakenly struck the Tudun Biri village on Sunday as residents celebrated a Muslim festival.

The army did not give any casualty figures, but residents had said 85 people, many of them women and children, were killed.

"The Northwest Zonal Office has received details from the local authorities that 85 dead bodies have so far been buried while the search is still ongoing," National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) said in a statement.

NEMA said another 66 people were being treated at hospital, but emergency officials were still negotiating with community leaders to calm tensions to be able reach the village.

Many of the victims were women, children and elderly who had been celebrating the Muslim festival of Maulud.

"I was inside the house when the first bomb was dropped... We rushed to the scene to help those affected and then a second bomb was dropped," resident Idris Dahiru told AFP.

"My aunt, my brother's wife and her six children, wives of my four brothers were among the dead. My elder brother's family are all dead, except his infant child who survived."

Bandits, jihadists

Nigeria's armed forces often rely on air strikes in their battle against bandit militias in the northwest and northeast of the country, where jihadists have been fighting for more than a decade.

"President Tinubu describes the incident as very unfortunate, disturbing and painful, expressing indignation and grief over the tragic loss of Nigerian lives," the presidency said in a statement.

The army had said its drone was a routine mission that "inadvertently affected" members of the community.

Map locating the state of Kaduna in Nigeria.  By Kenan AUGEARD AFP Map locating the state of Kaduna in Nigeria. By Kenan AUGEARD (AFP)

Later, it said the villagers had been mistaken for an armed group in the area.

"Terrorists often deliberately embed themselves within civilian population centres in order for the civilian population to bear the consequences of their atrocities," the military said in a statement.

"The military views every civilian death in the cause of operations as a tragedy."

After coming to office in May, Tinubu said tackling insecurity was one of his key concerns as he looks to bring more foreign investment to Africa's most populous nation.

Militia gangs have long terrorised parts of northwest Nigeria, operating from bases deep in forests and raiding villages to loot and kidnap residents for ransom.

In the northeast, jihadists have been pushed back from the territory they held at the height of the conflict, though they continue to fight on in rural areas.

More than 40,000 people have been killed and two million displaced since 2009 in that conflict.

Nigerian military bombing raids have accidentally hit civilians in the past.

At least 20 fishermen were killed and several injured in a September 2021 attack in Kwatar Daban Masara on Lake Chad in the northeast, when the military mistook them for militants.

In January 2017, at least 112 people were killed when a fighter jet struck a camp housing 40,000 people displaced by jihadist violence in the town of Rann near the border with Cameroon.

The Nigerian military blamed "lack of appropriate marking of the area" in a report issued six months later.