Witnesses in a north-east Nigeria village where local officials say at least 187 people were killed in an assault by the military and Islamic extremists said soldiers purposefully set fire to civilian homes, directly contradicting the government's claims.
The witnesses spoke to foreign journalists who arrived on Tuesday under a military escort to Baga, a fishing village along Lake Chad. The violence there marked the worst attack linked to Nigeria's Islamic insurgency.
Residents said soldiers specifically targeted civilians in their retaliation. That directly contradicts Nigerian government officials, who have been trying to downplay the killings.
"I lost everything in my house after soldiers came and set my house ablaze," Ibrahim Modu said. "They met me outside, walked into my house and put it on fire, after which they told me to leave so that I don't get burnt by the fire."
The fighting in Baga began on April 19 and lasted for hours, sending people fleeing into the arid scrublands. By the time Borno state officials could reach the city two days later, a local government official said at least 185 people were killed - something not disputed by a brigadier general who attended the visit.
Officials could not offer a breakdown of civilian casualties versus those of soldiers and extremist fighters. Many bodies had been burned beyond recognition in fires that razed whole sections of the village, residents said. Those killed were buried as soon as possible, following local Muslim tradition. Later, the Nigerian Red Cross said at least 187 people had been killed.
Members of the Islamic extremist network Boko Haram used heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades in the assault, which Brigadier General Austin Edokpaye said began after soldiers surrounded a mosque they believed was housing Boko Haram members. Extremists earlier had killed a military officer, officials said.
The military said extremists used civilians as human shields during the fighting, indicating that soldiers opened fire in neighbourhoods where they knew civilians lived. Violence by security forces in the north-east targeting civilians has been widely documented by journalists and human rights activists. A similar raid in Maiduguri, Borno state's capital, in October after extremists killed a military officer saw soldiers kill at least 30 civilians and set fires across a neighbourhood.
Nigerian authorities, who routinely downplay casualties, continue to say far fewer died in the Baga violence. On Tuesday, a statement by presidential spokesman Reuben Abati criticised "a lot of misinformation being peddled about the situation in Baga". Still, the statement said "the president said that what happened in Baga was most regrettable and unfortunate".
Boko Haram, which means "Western education is sacrilege" in the Hausa language of Nigeria's north, has said it wants its imprisoned members freed and strict Shariah law adopted across the multiethnic nation of more than 160 million people. In January 2012, Boko Haram launched a coordinated attack in Kano, northern Nigeria's largest city, that killed at least 185 people, the previous worst attack.