By Garba Muhammad
KADUNA, Nigeria (Reuters) – The Nigerian Air Force (NAF) on Sunday said it regretted a strike that killed dozens of civilians and injured others a year ago, accepting for the first time its responsibility for the incident investigated by Reuters.
Dozens of ethnic Fulani herders died in the January 2023 aerial bombing in central Nasarawa state as they unloaded cattle retrieved from authorities in a neighbouring state, according to witnesses, local leaders and detailed complaints.
In a rare acknowledgement of responsibility, the air force said its chief of air staff Air Marshal Hasan Abubakar had at the weekend visited affected communities after reviewing reports of the incident.
“Innocent civilians may have erroneously been killed or injured in the process,” the NAF said.
“In expressing regret over the incident, Air Marshal Abubakar noted that the unfortunate incident was not deliberate but had targeted suspected terrorists and cattle rustlers in view of the heightened level of insecurity in the area at the time.”
While Nigeria’s air force is mired in a war with Islamist insurgents in the northeast, it is also often called on to tackle criminal activity such as banditry in other areas.
The air force, which is backed by the United States and other Western powers, has killed civilians in other attacks too but seldom addresses that in public.
In November, at least 85 civilians were killed in northern Kaduna state following an army drone attack targeting insurgents and bandits. President Bola Tinubu ordered a thorough investigation, the outcome of which is expected later this year.
The air force said meeting with representatives of victims of the 2023 bomb attack “will assist in answering some important questions, promote accountability, transparency” and prevent similar incidents in future.
There was no mention of compensation.
The air force statement quoted a local community leader, Sidi Bage Muhammed, as saying after a meeting: “We have wholeheartedly accepted your apology.”
Representatives of victims could not be immediately reached for comment on the air force statement.
(Writing by MacDonald Dzirutwe; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)
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