Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) has claimed responsibility for the January 2023 fatal airstrike on Kawatiri community in Nasarawa State, which killed no fewer than 39 people.
The Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN) said the airstrike occurred after the herders went to reclaim 1,250 of their cows impounded by the Benue livestock guards.
Erstwhile Nasarawa State governor, Abdullahi Sule, had said the explosion in Kwatiri was not carried out by a NAF aircraft. He said “no air force plane flew through the area,” adding that the bombing was done by a drone whose operators were yet to be identified.
But about six months after the incident, the HRW said the military’s delay in owning up to the killing of dozens of civilians only compounds the tragedy of the attack. The human rights organisation, therefore, called on NAF to provide financial compensation to the victims and bereaved families.
“The Nigerian Air Force admitted for the first time, in response to an inquiry from Human Rights Watch, to carrying out the airstrike,” the report reads in part. It said it was an air component of Operation Whirl Stroke, a joint military, police, and Department of State Security operation, deployed in response to security problems in and around Nasarawa State. The air force claimed it carried out the airstrike in response to suspected terrorist activities, but provided no details.
“In a response, on May 17, Air Commodore D. D. Pwajok, on behalf of the chief of air staff, acknowledged that the air force carried out the strike based on credible intelligence and in synergy with other security forces and agencies in Nasarawa State. The letter said that air force surveillance footage showed the movement of suspected terrorists who converged around a truck suspected to be a logistics vehicle, which arrived at the location at night and was determined to be a target for the airstrike.
“The letter did not respond to key questions, including how information regarding the suspected threat was considered and verified, whether efforts were made to investigate and verify the identity of those targeted, or if any assessment was carried out before the airstrike, to avoid or mitigate civilian harm. The absence of details raises the question of whether the air force carried out the airstrike based on mere suspicion. The letter concluded that the Nigerian air force is committed to upholding human rights and is open to further deliberations on the issue.”
Since 2017, no fewer than 300 people have been reportedly killed by airstrikes which the Nigerian Air Force claimed were targeted at bandits and Boko Haram terrorists.