KADUNA, Nigeria—Police opened fire Tuesday on unarmed Shiite Muslim protesters in the northern city of Kaduna, leaving three dead, the spokesman for Shiites in Nigeria said, as activists accused soldiers of having killed hundreds of Shiites in “a massacre” in a nearby town in recent days.
But police spokesman Zubairu Abdullahi denied any killings and said Shiites tried to attack a police station.
“We only repel the sect who attempted to attack our station,” he said. “We only used tear gas to disperse them. Maybe in the process of dispersing them, they sustained injury, I don’t know.”
Spokesman Ibrahim Musa of the Shiite Islamic Movement in Nigeria said three people were killed and 10 wounded when police shot “peaceful protesters.” They were condemning the mass killings over the weekend and early Monday in the ancient Muslim university town of Zaria, and demanding the military release their leader, Ibraheem Zakzaky.
The bloodshed in Zaria was yet another blow to Africa’s most populous nation, already beset by a 6-year-old insurgency waged by Boko Haram, a violent Islamic group which is at odds with the Shiites and others who oppose its extremist views.
Amnesty International said in a statement late Tuesday that the shooting of members of the Shiite group in Zaria “must be urgently investigated … and anyone found responsible for unlawful killings must be brought to justice.”
“Whilst the final death toll is unclear, there is no doubt of that there has been a substantial loss of life at the hands of the military,” said M.K. Ibrahim, director of Amnesty International, Nigeria.
Musa said soldiers on Monday carried away about 200 bodies from around Zakzaky’s home in Zaria, and hundreds more corpses are in the mortuary. Human rights activists said hundreds upon hundreds, perhaps as many as 1,000, have been killed.
The army said troops attacked sites in Zaria after 500 Shiites blocked the convoy of Nigeria’s army chief, and tried to kill him on Saturday. A report from the military police said some Shiites were crawling through tall grass toward Gen. Tukur Buratai’s vehicle “with the intent to attack the vehicle with (a) petrol bomb” while others “suddenly resorted to firing gunshots from the direction of the mosque.”
Ojo Momodu, a witness, said the Shiites barricaded the road with burning tires as Buratai approached and then stoned his convoy. The group, however, denied that it blocked the road.
The military raids on Zakzaky’s home and spiritual centers in two other areas in Zaria began hours later.
Chidi Odinkalu of the Nigerian Human Rights Commission called the attacks “a massacre.” He posted photos on social media showing a bulldozer tearing apart a Shiite shrine, but doubts later emerged about whether the image was actually from Zaria. He also said Zakzaky’s home was destroyed.
Odinkalu told The Associated Press that Zakzaky suffered four bullet wounds and one of his wives was killed in raids that began Saturday and ended Monday morning. He was quoting the family doctor.
Two of Zakzaky’s sons also were killed and one was wounded, according to Musa.
Odinkalu and other human rights activists said there are hundreds of bodies at the mortuary of the Ahmadu Bello University Teaching Hospital on the outskirts of Zaria.
“Citizens must ask, who ordered this carnage?” Odinkalu tweeted.
Maj Gen. Adeniyi Oyebade, who was in charge of the military operation, told reporters Monday night that the military acted because they had reports the Shiites were gathering for an attack. “Of course, because of the report I got that they are mobilizing, I had to order that the Gyallesu (Zakzaky’s residence) and Huissaniya (shrine) be brought down,” he said.
He said both the military and the Shiites suffered casualties and that the dead were still being counted.
Odinkalu, the human rigts official, tweeted that his friend, UNDP worker Bukhari Mohammed Bello Jega, was killed and “his young wife & child are also missing, presumed dead …”
Outraged Nigerians took to social media to condemn “trigger-happy troops” and “extra-judicial killings.”
The three areas attacked by the military remained on lockdown Tuesday, with no one allowed to enter or leave. The military also manned roadblocks to prevent more Shiites from entering Zaria, Musa said. He charged wounded people are being denied medical treatment by the blocks.
Iran, seen as the guardian of the Shiite Muslim faith, condemned the killings.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari to say “some pursue discord among Muslims” and that when “terrorism is a serious threat against many Muslim countries’ security, the Muslims need to unite.”
Iran state TV said Rouhani said he expects the Nigerian government to compensate bereaved families and injured victims.
Hundreds of Shiites protested in front of the Nigerian embassies in the Iranian and Indian capitals Tuesday.
Nigeria’s Shiites, a movement of millions started 37 years ago by Zakzaky, who dresses in the robes and turban of an Iranian ayatollah, often have clashed with police and other security forces over their unlawful blocking of major roads to hold religious processions.
Nigeria’s military is infamous for its excesses. Nigerian troops are accused of killing thousands of detainees by shooting, torture, starvation and suffocation in its prosecution of a war against Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria.
The Shiites two weeks ago suffered a suicide bombing in a procession that killed 22 people. Boko Haram, a Salafist group, claimed responsibility for the attack and threatened to “wipe out” the Shiites opposed to its radical vision of Islam.
In 2009, Nigerian armed forces attacked Boko Haram’s headquarters and killed about 700 people, including its leader. The group re-emerged as a much more violent entity.