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Nigeria army denies killing peaceful protesters

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The Nigerian army has denied shooting live rounds at peaceful protesters, telling a judicial panel Saturday that only blank bullets were fired at crowds in Lagos gathered despite a curfew. 

Youth-led demonstrations across Africa's most populous country began on October 8, targeting a hated police unit, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), that the authorities promised to disband as pressure mounted.

Anger turned into unrest, culminating on October 20 when security forces shot at a thousand demonstrators in the economic hub Lagos — killing 12 people, according to Amnesty International. 

A panel of inquiry set up to investigate the bloodshed and wider allegations of abuses by SARS resumed Saturday, featuring testimony from the army that presented graphic videos to back its claims.

"You can see they are firing in the air, and firing blank ammunitions," Brigadier General Ahmed Ibrahim Taiwo said, showing what appeared to be soldiers at the scene.

The shooting was widely condemned internationally including by US then-presidential candidate Joe Biden, who urged the government and military "to cease the violent crackdown on protesters." 

"There has been a lot misinformation about the Nigerian army," Taiwo said. Its "only crime was to report for duty to protect us all," he added, confirming that soldiers were deployed across the state on request of the governor. 

Responding to a claim from a female witness saying a dead body was seen at the scene, the spokesman said "the casualty she saw had been overcome by shock."

But many more similar testimonies from survivors have yet to be addressed by the authorities. 

The Lagos State Governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu — who previously denied calling in the army — said there were only two confirmed deaths. 

Targeted campaign

The army general spent most of his presentation denouncing violence by "hoodlums" (a word often used in Nigeria for criminals) who the authorities insisted had hijacked the protests. 

Taiwo claimed acts of cannibalism were committed against police officers. 

"Due to the emergency of the situation, it is no surprise the governor declared a curfew," Taiwo said.

Police said that 51 civilians and 22 policemen were killed in the aftermath of the protests that were largely peaceful, while 205 police stations and other buildings were burnt or vandalised.  

The government promised a string of reforms and told protesters it had heard their demands, but several say there is a targeted campaign to intimate them.

The judicial panel was postponed last week after two members abstained in protest against the Central Bank of Nigeria's decision to freeze bank accounts belonging to 20 supporters of the protesters — a step that has been condemned by rights groups.

"The authorities should immediately remove all punitive financial measures that appear to have been placed on individuals or organisations simply for providing information or supporting people exercising their fundamental rights," said Anietie Ewang, Nigeria researcher at Human Rights Watch. 

"Any attempts to suppress legitimate protests and genuine calls for accountability by arbitrarily blocking funds would be a gross abuse of power," she added.

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