Nigerians in northern Yobe state are decrying a Boko Haram attack that resulted in 160 people–including dozens of children–drowning as they fled the terrorist group. But the Nigerian military is calling the reports “unsubstantiated” and denying the attack occurred at all.
Reporters with Agence France-Presse spoke to residents of the Yobe village, who confirmed the attack occurred last Thursday and they were just concluding burials for up to 160 people. The number, originally at 150, rose as other villages surrounding the body of water into which many fled reported finding new bodies washing ashore.
The Nigerian military had no presence in the village, leaving Boko Haram, a subgroup of the Islamic State, to fight only a vigilante group made up of recruited hunters. One of those hunters, Alhaji Kankana Sarkin-Baka, told AFP that of the 160 bodies, only eight had fatal gunshot wounds, indicating most people drowned to death rather than died at the hands of Boko Haram terrorists. “We recovered guns and explosives and drugs from them,” he added.
Another resident speaking anonymously to BBC confirmed that 60 of the dead were children, and described the scene before the attack:
We were getting ready to observe evening prayers, all of a sudden we started hearing sounds of gunshots. … We all ran for our dear life into the bush. The following morning we returned home and discovered corpses of 60 children. They all drowned in the river in their effort to escape the attack.
The Nigerian military is denying all of this. Army spokesman Colonel Rabe Abubakar released a statement calling the reports “not true, utterly scurrilous and very misleading.” He claimed the military had heard there would be an attack on the village “mid-afternoon yesterday” and had managed to thwart the attack by preemptively disabling the wing of Boko Haram planning to raid the village.
“Honestly, I am not happy with the way the military tried to deny that our village was attacked. Many of us who are yet to return have changed our minds about going back by this stance of the military,” one resident told AFP, responding to the denials on behalf of the military. Villagers report no troop presence in the region still, one week after the attack.
While denying the Yobe attack, the Nigerian military has issued a statement reporting that it has captured two high-ranking Boko Haram leaders. “The troops also destroyed their vehicles, weapons and motorcycles,” an army spokesman said.
The offensive against Boko Haram–now officially the Islamic State West Africa Province–has required the military to employ a number of strategies, most recently a thorough search of Nigerian refugees being repatriated from Cameroon. The military announced this week that it had found 22 Boko Haram terrorists plotting an attack among a group of 12,000 Nigerian refugees that Cameroon had transported and dropped back into the Nigerian border. Of those returned, 90% were from northeast Borno state, and a few happened to be Boko Haram terrorists. The military explained that those plotting a suicide bombing had been branded with “a mark inscribed on their backs with hot iron in the form of tattoos,” a sign they were ready for death.