Nigeria’s Defence Headquarters (DHQ) on Friday denied the alleged massacre of civilians in Konshisha Local Government Area of Benue State by troops of Operation Whirl Stroke operating in the area.
This is as Governor Samuel Ortom of Benue State has called for restraint on all sides including the military following the crisis between communities in Konshisha and Oju local government areas resulting in the current military operation in some communities.
The Defence Headquarters said the bodies of soldiers killed in Konshisha by bandits were burnt beyond recognition even as it warned that the military establishment would not condone the jungle justice meted out on soldiers on national duty.
The social media was awash with pictures of about 200 houses destroyed and claims of the killing of 51 civilians during a military invasion of Konshisha.
The Nigerian Army had, Thursday night, issued a statement confirming the killing of one officer and 10 soldiers in Konshisha by bandits.
A statement issued by the Director, Defence Information, Brigadier-General Onyema Nwachukwu, said beyond killing the soldiers in cold blood as they approached the area to quell a communal clash, the bodies of the 11 soldiers were burnt beyond recognition.
“The attention of the Defence Headquarters is drawn to numerous publications in the media and other online blogs reporting massive killing and destruction of houses and other property by the military in Konshisha LGA of Benue State.
“The Defence Headquarters which has oversight responsibility for Operation Whirl Stroke deployed to maintain peace in Benue, Nasarawa and Taraba states, has deemed it necessary to refute these spurious allegations and put the records straight,” he said.
Explaining the root of the crisis prior to the killings, the DHQ said: “there have been incessant cases of communal clashes in recent times between the people of Konshisha and Oju over boundary demarcation. As part of efforts to resolve the crisis, the Benue State Government held series of meetings with stakeholders from both local governments with a view to arriving at amicable solution to the problem.
“Appreciable progress has been made and a final date fixed for all stakeholders to meet in the disputed areas to fully demarcate the boundary so that peace could reign. Trouble however started on the eve of the final meeting during Easter holiday, with reports that fresh fighting has broken out in the area.”
The statement noted that “all along, 72 Special Forces Battalion has troops deployed on the Oju side of the boundary and troops of the Battalion were on their way to replenish their colleagues on 5 April 2021, when they were attacked by armed bandits at Bonta in Konshisha. The troops who were under command of a Captain were seized at a checkpoint mounted by the so called “Bonta Boys” and taken into Konshisha forest where they were all brutally murdered. “Not satisfied with killing the soldiers, the bandits proceeded to burn all the eleven soldiers and their officer beyond recognition while their weapons and ammunition were carted away. Military reinforcements were dispatched to Bonta the following morning.”
The Defence Headquarters further said: “unfortunately, the reinforcement also came under attack from close to 500 armed youths who by this time had fully occupied Bonta. The sheer number of youths involved in the attacks suggests that the armed bandits cannot be from Bonta alone, but were joined by bandits from other parts of Konshisha LGA.
“The military repelled the attack after more than four hours of intense fighting during which military helicopter provided close air support to ground troops. Ten armed bandits were killed during the fight with the rifle of one of the killed in action soldiers recovered from the bandits who fell casualty during the exchange of fire.”
The Defence Headquarters maintained that apart from the initial 10 bandits, there are no other civilian casualties recorded in any part of Konshisha.
“We, therefore, challenge anybody from Konshisha to present to the public the 200, 70 or 30 dead bodies of innocent persons, male, female or children killed by troops in Konshisha. There was never a massacre as being touted by some mischief makers.
“The remnants of the armed bandits that escaped from Bonta withdrew into neighbouring villages where they kept on attacking troops as they continued with the search operation through Bonta into other parts of Konshisha”, it said.
The statement said the villagers knowing the implications of killing troops in cold blood, fled their homes which were then occupied by armed bandits who kept firing at troops from the settlements as they advanced into Konshisha.
It said troops repelled the attacks and destroyed the houses and other buildings which the criminals used as hideout for the attacks.
“The use of abandoned settlements by armed bandits to attack troops is popular with insurgents. The aim is to draw military fire into the dwellings and then turn round to blame soldiers for the destruction. “This is common guerilla tactics armed bandit designed to whip up public sentiment against security forces and this is what played out in Konshisha. This accounts for some of the burnt houses being reported in the press”, it said.
The DHQ stated that some of the phones of the dead soldiers were also tracked to some of the settlements.
“We should therefore blame the armed bandits for the destruction since they used these settlements as hideout for attacks. It will be wrong to blame soldiers who are in Konshisha on legitimate duties when some of them were murdered in cold blood.
“Some of the buildings being paraded today were actually burnt during earlier communal clashes between Konshisha and Oju, all of which the sponsors of the mayhem are now blaming on the military”, it said.
The Defence Headquarters further maintained that soldiers deployed to Konshisha displayed commendable restraints by adhering to the rules of engagement in the face of unprovoked attacks and therefore deserve accolades. It, therefore, demanded the return of all weapons carted away by the bandits.
“The local leaders of Konshisha must bring the main actors responsible for the mayhem to security forces to face justice. They must also surrender all other weapons in their possession.
“The military will not tolerate the jungle justice attitude and dastardly acts leading to the gruesome murder of patriotic soldiers on legitimate duty to keep the peace”, it said.
The statement expressed the readiness of the military to work with the Benue State government in its promise to support security forces in fishing out those fomenting trouble in Konshisha.
“Once again, there is no massacre in Konshisha and the stories making the rounds are fabricated by bandits and their sponsors to smear the military after murdering troops in cold blood”, it said.
Ortom directed leaders of the affected areas to ensure that the weapons the bandits took away from the military personnel deployed to bring peace between the warring communities were returned without delay.
“I further urge members of those communities to expose perpetrators of the unprovoked attacks on the military as such an act is condemnable and also capable of jeopardising the efforts Government has made to guarantee the return of peace to the area”.
“You will recall that in an effort to find a solution to the crisis, I set up a Boundary Committee headed by the Deputy Governor, Engineer Benson Abounu to resolve the land dispute in collaboration with the National Boundary Commission,” he said.
He explained that the committee had fixed a date for the demarcation of the area in contention when renewed violence broke out between the Bonta Community of Konshisha Local Government Area and Okpute Community of Oju Local Government Area.
He reiterated that his administration was determined to see the end of the crisis and would support security agencies to fish out those responsible for the crime.
He further urged the military to avoid civilian casualties and protect law abiding people while efforts are on to recover their missing weapons.
Kingsley Nwezeh in Abuja and George Okoh in Makurdi