A protest march by the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) in the nation’s capital of Abuja turned fatal Monday, as at least eight people including a police officer were killed in clashes between Shiite protesters and security forces.
Police fired tear gas as well as live rounds on members of the IMN, who marched Monday to demand the release of their leader Ibrahim Zakzaky. While security killed several of the marchers, some of the armed protesters shot dead a deputy commissioner of police, Usman Umar. A 23-year-old trainee journalist covering the event, Ms. Precious Owolabi, was also hit by a stray bullet and later died in the hospital.
Each group blamed the other for the lethal violence.
“The police threw two canisters at us and immediately followed it by shooting at our members,” said IMN spokesman Abubakar Abdulrahman. “We have recovered six bodies, and many of our members are injured.”
Nigerian police claimed the protesters were heavily armed and that they assaulted innocent citizens and police on duty in Abuja’s Central Business District. They said that demonstrators destroyed two vehicles and set fire to a unit of the National Emergency Management Agency.
Police arrested 54 people in connection to the incident.
For his part, Mr. Abdulrahman said the marchers were unarmed, insisting that it was the police who started the fire as their gas canisters struck the emergency unit.
“This just distraction from the real issue at stake. We have been protesting for the past three years and seven months,” he said. “It is the security operatives that usually turns [sic] it to be violent by using live ammunition and tear gas canisters.”
An AFP journalist on the scene said that protesters had thrown Molotov cocktails, torching a local fire station.
“The police responded and started shooting live ammunitions,” the journalist said. “I saw six people dead in different places, one of them was a teenager.”
Amnesty International denounced the police conduct as a “reckless use of force.”
“This new crackdown is part of a shocking pattern in which security forces have used live ammunition to disperse IMN supporters who are simply exercising their freedom of expression,” the group declared.
Shiite leader Ibrahim Zakzaky was arrested in 2015, following a crackdown by security forces which left hundreds of IMN members dead. He is still being held in Kaduna where he faces charges of homicide and unlawful assembly.
There are some three million Shiite Muslims in Nigeria and a majority of them reside in the north of the country.
The IMN was born as a student movement in the late 1970s, drawing inspiration from the Islamic revolution in Iran under the Ayatollah Khomeini.