A total of 63 policemen were killed in the Ombatse cult violence of May 7 in Nasarawa State, police authorities told an inquiry commission yesterday, giving a toll that nearly tripled official figures announced days after the incident.
In the wake of the ambush on security personnel which happened just outside the state capital Lafia, the police command had said 23 policemen were killed, even though media reports gave much higher numbers.
But in a submission before the state inquiry commission in Lafia yesterday, a police officer said a total of 63 policemen as well as 10 operatives of the State Security Services (SSS) were killed in the violence.
The police memo was signed by Police Commissioner Shehu Umaru, and read on his behalf by Chief Superintendent Sam Ewa.
The submission was made behind closed doors, on the request of the police, which was allowed by commission chairman retired Justice Joseph Fola Gbadeyan. But officials who were present during the presentation briefed Daily Trust on the details in the 15-page police memo.
The memo said the decision to embark on the ill-fated operation was approved by the Nasarawa State Security Council, comprising the governor, Secretary to the State Government, Attorney General and Commissioner of Justice, heads of security agencies in the state, and key traditional rulers.
The operation was a joint one between the conventional police, state Criminal Investigation Bureau (CIB), the Mobile Police Squadron 38 in Akwanga otherwise called Tiger Squadron, and the SSS.
Security agencies and the state government had earlier received reports of criminal and occult activities by members of Ombatse at their shrine in Alakyo, along Lafia-Shendam Road in Lafia Local Government Area, the memo said.
Following approval of the operation, a combined team of security agencies headed to Alakyo on the night of May 7 to seal off the shrine, and it was while they were on their way that they were ambushed by armed cult members who opened fire, killing a total of 73 personnel.
Five of the dead were burnt beyond recognition, while 28 personnel survived the ambush with some of them having injuries, the memo added.
On May 11, just days after the Alakyo incident, Inspector General of Police Mohammed Abubakar, who visited Lafia, restated that 23 policemen were killed as earlier mentioned by the state police command. He said also efforts were being made to free the four personnel who were believed to be still held by the Ombatse cult.
But the police memo presented yesterday made no mention of the hostages.
During the inquiry commission's closed-door sitting, an oral submission was also made by a survivor of the attack, Superintendent of Police Nelson Igbinoba.
He said he struggled with an armed Ombatse member, who tried to kill him but whom he was able to overpower and take away his cutlass. He said he used the cutlass to "clear" some of the attackers, thereby saving seven security personnel.
The survivor, who testified in support of the police memo, was led in evidence by police counsel SP Maiwada Saleh Adam.
Both the witness and the representative of the police commissioner were cross-examined by several counsel, including the commission's counsel Funso Lawal, during the proceeding that lasted from 2.10pm to 6.27pm.
The Nasarawa inquiry commission has been holding public hearings since July, taking evidence from people in areas affected by the Ombatse violence as well as from officials.
The sessions were being beamed live by the state-owned television station and the Nigeria Television Authority (NTA).
But yesterday, the police counsel asked that their presentation should not be telecast live for security reasons and for fear of jeopardising ongoing investigations.
In approving this, commission chairman Gbadeyan extended the coverage ban to all journalists, including newspaper reporters and photo journalists.
Newsmen, who were there to cover the proceedings as usual, were sent out of the Chief Magistrate Court II, venue of the hearing, by armed security men at about 2.10pm. Gbadeyan said also journalists would no longer be allowed to cover the proceedings of the commission, which has two more submissions to receive--from the SSS and the Nasarawa State Government.