(New York, October 25, 2001) - Human Rights Watch today condemned the massacre of more than 100 civilians by Nigerian soldiers in several villages in Benue State, apparently carried out as revenge for the killing of 19 soldiers earlier this month.

Human Rights Watch urged President Olusegun Obasanjo to set up an independent investigation into the military operation in Benue since October 22 and to bring to justice those found responsible.

“The security forces have a duty to protect, not to attack, the population,” said Peter Takirambudde, Executive Director of the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. “The murder of the 19 soldiers should certainly be condemned, but their deaths do not justify the slaughter of civilians by the Nigerian army.”

Militia of the Tiv ethnic group are believed to have been responsible for the abduction and murder of 19 soldiers, whose mutilated bodies were found in the village of Zaki-Biam on October 12. According to official statements, the soldiers had been deployed to the area to restore law and order following clashes between the Tiv and Jukun ethnic groups. Benue and neighboring Taraba states, in central Nigeria, have been the scene of longstanding disputes between these two groups, which erupted again in recent weeks.

According to information received from local sources, including Nigerian human rights groups, the military operation began on Monday, October 22, when soldiers from the 23rd armored brigade of the 3rd armored division of the Nigerian army rounded up residents in Gbeji village for a “meeting,” made them sit on the ground, separated the men from the others, and then opened fire upon the men indiscriminately. Witnesses reported that some of the victims’ bodies were then set ablaze. Further killings took place as soldiers invaded the villages of Vasae, Anyiin Iorja, Ugba, Sankera and Zaki-Biam, all located in the two local government areas of Logo and Zaki-Biam. In the following two days, there was widespread destruction of property and buildings in these villages, after terrified residents had abandoned their homes.

While the total number of victims has not yet been established, survivors and eyewitnesses have reported that at least 100 and possibly more than 200 people died at the hands of the soldiers. Thousands of people have been displaced or have fled into the bush for safety.

The situation in the area remains extremely tense. There is still a heavy military presence and the troops who carried out the operation have reportedly not been withdrawn. A dusk to dawn curfew has been imposed. On October 24 and 25 further violence broke out, including around the university in the state capital Makurdi, where students and others staged protests at the army’s actions. Vehicles and tires were set ablaze. There were reports of further deaths and injuries.

The killing of the 19 soldiers was energetically condemned by the Nigerian federal government. At their state funeral on October 22, President Olusegun Obasanjo publicly urged the security forces to spare no effort in tracking down those responsible.

The situation in Benue was reminiscent of a sequence of events in the town of Odi, in Bayelsa state in southern Nigeria, in November 1999, when soldiers seeking to avenge the murder of 12 policemen by local armed groups razed the entire town and killed scores of civilians.

“Tragically, the lessons of Odi have not been learned,” said Takirambudde. “After the discovery of the soldiers’ bodies, the Nigerian authorities could easily have predicted that anger in the military would lead to revenge. Everyone was talking about the likelihood of retaliation, yet no steps appear to have been taken to prevent the military from retaliating.”

No member of the armed forces is known to have been prosecuted for the events in Odi. Human Rights Watch urged that the government’s response to events in Benue must not be characterized by the same negligence.

“President Obasanjo must accept responsibility for the actions of the Nigerian army and put an end to the impunity which protects the Nigerian armed forces,” said Takirambudde.

Human Rights Watch also warned that these latest events would aggravate an already tense situation in Benue and neighboring states in central Nigeria which have been the scene of repeated inter-communal violence in the last few months. Hundreds of people have lost their lives in clashes between different ethnic groups in Benue, Nasarawa, Taraba and Plateau States and tens of thousands have been displaced.

“The Nigerian Government has a responsibility to tackle the roots of these problems and restore peace in the area,” said Takirambudde. “It cannot just stand by and watch, or intervene only when members of its own security forces are affected.”