Obasanjo defends soldiers

Lagos - A leading human rights group in Nigeria slammed President Olusegun Obasanjo on Monday for defending the actions of soldiers who went on a killing rampage last week, leaving some 200 civilians dead.

Obasanjo said Sunday that soldiers who killed civilians in central Benue State during the three-day rampage had acted in self-defence.

"That statement from the Nigerian head of state showed his high level of insensitivity to the feelings of most Nigerians over the massacre," Abdul Oroh, the executive director of Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO) told AFP.

"It shows that he is either disconnected from the mainstream of Nigeria or that he has lost control of the army," said the head of the CLO, a leading human rights body in Africa's most populous nation.

In a television programme on Sunday, Obasanjo accused people in the towns in Benue State of firing on the soldiers first.

"For young men to take up guns - they are not properly trained to carry guns and shoot at soldiers - you don't think that is dangerous?" the president said.

"Whatever else soldiers are taught to be or not to be, they are taught to fight in self-defence," he added.

The troops raided the villages of Zaki-Biam, Gbeji, Anyii, Iorja, Vaase, Tseadoor and Sankara, opening fire on residents, torching homes and market places and flattening buildings with shells.

The bloody attacks came after 19 soldiers were abducted and killed three weeks ago along the border of Benue and neighbouring state Taraba. The army had been deployed in the area to contain ongoing ethnic feuding.

The soldiers' bodies had been mutilated.

A political scientist said Obasanjo's stance was similar to one taken two years ago when soldiers killed more than 300 people in reprisal attacks in Odi in the southern Bayelsa State.

"His attitude replicates what he put up after Odi town was destroyed in late 1999 by soldiers shortly after he was sworn into office," Adeleke Adejuwo commented.

"Soldiers should be taught how to behave in a civilian dispensation," he added.

Obasanjo's government sent troops to Odi after 12 policemen were killed.

The president never apologised for the killings in Odi. - Sapa-AFP

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