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Nigeria fishing town paralysed by fear after slaughter

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

A few residents stand amid razed houses and charred vehicles in the Nigerian fishing town of Baga, still mostly deserted nearly two weeks after fierce fighting between troops and Islamist insurgents.

The bloody events of April 16 and 17 in the remote town which left almost 200 people dead are still murky and mired in heated debate.

"The soldiers can claim they did not burn our homes because it happened in the dark," resident Gaji Bukar told AFP on a tour of the village under military supervision.

"But (my) area was burnt the following morning in broad daylight by soldiers who went door-to-door setting fire to homes and everybody saw them."

The military has denied accusations it deliberately shot civilians and set the blazes that razed nearly half the town, which lies near Lake Chad in the northeast corner of Borno state, the stronghold of radical Islamist group Boko Haram.

Nearly 200 people, including soldiers, insurgents and scores of civilians were killed, according to rescue officials and local leaders, making it the deadliest-ever episode in the Boko Haram conflict which has cost 3,600 lives since 2009.

Bukar's account was supported by statements given to Human Rights Watch by residents who say that the morning after brutal fighting between soldiers and insurgents on April 16, the military returned to Baga and set fire to homes.

"We had no hand in setting the fire," Brigadier-General Austin Edokpayi told AFP as his troops guided journalists through the dusty streets, the blackened rubble of destroyed buildings visible throughout.

He said a four-hour gun battle started on the evening of April 16 as soldiers tried to thwart an impending attack by the insurgents. A military statement explained that troops returned the next morning to "mop up."

Edokpayi commands a multi-national force that includes troops from Chad, Niger and Nigeria, which is responsible for the region where porous borders allow criminal and insurgent groups to freely flow between countries.

Parts of the state have fallen under Boko Haram's control, he told journalists, a rare admission from the security services which typically seek to portray the Islamists as being on the defensive.

"Some areas are now dominated by these terrorists and people live under their laws," he said.

He described Baga as a town paralysed by fear, where "nobody dares say anything against (Boko Haram) because if you do that, they come after you."

Dripping sweat under a searing sun as he piled up the wreckage of his burnt-down home, Usman Mohammed, 42, told AFP that scores of his neighbours are still in hiding, fearing the fighting could resume.

"Many people are still in the bush," he said, adding that Boko Haram had sent word to stay away from Baga as more attacks were coming.

Certain neighbourhoods were declared off-limits to journalists by their military chaperones, areas that residents said had been the hardest hit.

AFP reporters visited one area where two rows of freshly dug graves protruded from the desert terrain, each marked by a series of small sticks.

"They should allow you to visit the two other cemeteries where most of the victims were buried," said resident Adamu Bulama.

The military has said that the absence of mass graves in Baga proves the death tolls have been inflated, insisting that only 37 people died, including 30 militants, six civilians and one soldier.

Senator Maina Lawan, a Baga native who represents northern Borno, told AFP that he visited a series of graves last week and provided a death toll of 228.

The Red Cross has said that 187 people were killed.

The Boko Haram conflict, which the insurgents say is aimed at creating an Islamic state in northern Nigeria, has seen scores of deadly attacks across the north and centre of the country, Africa's most populous and top oil producer.

But the level of destruction in Baga appears unprecedented.

Nigerian lawmakers have called for an independent investigation, while Human Rights Watch said the events of April 16 and 17 needed to be probed by the International Criminal Court.

The rights group warned of signs that Nigeria "has tried to cover up" the abuses in Baga, publishing satellite images identifying 2,275 buildings apparently destroyed by fire, a figure the military has categorically dismissed.

A relief effort has been launched, with 642 people being sheltered in a makeshift camp, according to the National Emergency Management Agency.

But residents and Lawan, the senator, told AFP much more is needed including food supplies as normal trade in the area had stopped following the attacks.

Mohammed, the 42-year-old resident, said some of his neighbours had no plans to come back.

"Even those who are willing to return have stayed away," he said, "because they have lost their homes to fire and have nowhere to stay."

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130501/nigeria-fishing-town-paralysed-fear-after-slaughter