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Nigerian president calls for investigation after army drone strike accident kills 85

Nigerian President Bola Tinubuspeaks at a panel at a G20-led summit for Africa in Berlin in November.
Sean Gallup
Getty Images
Nigerian President Bola Tinubuspeaks at a panel at a G20-led summit for Africa in Berlin in November.

LAGOS, Nigeria — Nigeria's president has ordered an investigation after the country's military launched a drone strike at a public gathering this weekend, killing at least 85 people and wounding dozens of others.

Villagers in Nigeria's northern Kaduna state had gathered for the Muslim celebration of the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, when they were hit by the airstrike operated from an armed drone at around 9 p.m. Sunday.

Those killed included children and elderly, according to emergency services, as a search for more bodies continues. Community leaders told local media the death toll was over 90 people, and eyewitnesses in the rural town of Tudun Biri described horrific scenes of several mutilated bodies.

In a statement through Tuesday, Nigerian President Bola Tinubu said the attack was "disturbing and painful" and pledged a "thorough and full-fledged investigation into the incident," which he described as a "bombing mishap."

A spokesman for the army, Brig. Gen. Onyema Nwachukwu, said its forces had located a group of people and determined they were militants, who officials often refer to as "bandits," at large in north and central Nigeria. Officers "misinterpreted their pattern of activities to be similar to that of the bandits," he said.

Criminal groups of thousands of militants have become the primary security threat in much of northern and central Nigeria, effectively occupying rural villages, launching attacks and mass kidnappings.

On Tuesday, the head of the Nigerian army, Lt. Gen. Taoreed Lagbaja, visited the scene and the local hospital where victims were taken to be treated.

"It is grave, regrettable," Lagbaja said. "We will do everything possible to prevent such an occurrence from happening again in the conduct of our operations going forward."

Yet calls for accountability are building, following one of the worst apparently accidental attacks against civilians among a pattern of similar incidents.

In January, 39 people were killed by an army airstrike in the central state of Nasarawa. In June, the Nigerian air force admitted responsibility, and has since provided no further details on whether any officers were held accountable.

In 2017, the air force bombed a refugee camp in the northeastern town of Rann in Borno state, the epicenter of the Boko Haram insurgency. More than 100 people were killed, including aid workers. The air force said the airstrike was launched using the wrong coordinates, and it did not reveal whether any officers were held accountable.

The U.S. government has provided Nigeria's armed forces with support and weapons in its fight against insurgent groups, despite a long record of human rights violations in the West African nation and "accidental" attacks against civilians without prosecution. In April last year, the State Department approved an almost $1 billion weapons sale to Nigeria.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Emmanuel Akinwotu
Emmanuel Akinwotu is an international correspondent for NPR. He joined NPR in 2022 from The Guardian, where he was West Africa correspondent.