The Nigerian Army has explained what led to the burning down of a Benue community by its troops on Wednesday, saying the attack followed the killing of one soldier by some residents.
The soldier was allegedly buried in a shallow grave a day before, but the apparent reprisal by the army resulted in the death of one elderly citizen who was killed in the blaze.
Pictures of his charred body covered in soot was sent to PREMIUM TIMES.
PREMIUM TIMES broke the news of the attack by irate soldiers who stormed Naka, the headquarters of Gwer West Local Government Area, burning down residential buildings and commercial stores. Properties and goods, especially cash crops, estimated in millions were destroyed during the incident.
Francis Ayagah, chairman of the local government, had told PREMIUM TIMES on Thursday afternoon that Nigerian soldiers were responsible for the arson.
He acknowledged that a soldier was killed in the community on Wednesday, but said he had been in touch with the commander of the troops, who were stationed near the town to check ongoing killings linked to herdsmen across Benue State.
The soldier was said to have been alone when he was killed in unclear circumstances Wednesday afternoon.
One account said he was roaming on a farmland near the community and was lynched by hoodlums who mistook him for an attack. There have been reports that some killers were sighted in military fatigues in the state over the past week.
Another account said the slain soldier went to buy bread in large quantity in the community and when asked to identity himself by curious residents, he declined to do so and was subsequently assumed to be an attacker and mobbed to death.
Mr Ayagah said five suspects had been arrested based on information received from the Army, expressing his dismay that the soldiers could still embark on a rampage across the town despite his cooperation.
Olabisi Ayeni, a spokesperson for the Nigerian Army 707 Special Forces Brigade in Makurdi, identified the slain soldier as Danlami Gambo, a private.
"On 18 April 2018, at about 3:30 pm, troops of 707 Sf Brigade deployed at Naka in Gwer West LGA of Benue State observed the absence of PTE Danlami Gambo from his duty post. The soldier's rifle was however found at the location.
"It was gathered that the soldier was last seen receiving a phone call but left in search of network and did not return. Troops immediately conducted patrols to search for the soldier during the search, at about 6.10 pm, our troops observed blood stains along a footpath leading to a newly dug grave.
"They immediately dug out the grave and the dead body of the missing soldier was found butchered. The corpse was later exhumed and deposited at the Nigerian Air Force mortuary, Makurdi.
"Preliminary investigation reveals that some locals were involved in the killing of the soldier which has led to the arrest of some suspects by a team dispatched from the unit to the scene of the incident," Mr Ayeni, a major, said in a statement Thursday evening.
He, however, failed to say whether the soldiers who participated in the reprisal attack that left a senior citizen killed would be punished for the criminal offence.
Governor Samuel Ortom is on an annual vacation in China. But his deputy, Benson Abounu, who has been acting as governor, would tour Naka to assess the damage by the soldiers today, Mr Ayagah told PREMIUM TIMES Friday morning.
Kenneth Kwaghhemba, a resident of the community who witnessed the attack and sent pictures and videos of the aftermath to PREMIUM TIMES, said the soldiers have deserted the town, prompting residents to flee for fear of being attacked by gunmen.
"The soldiers have left and many people are running away from the town because there's nobody to protect them from attacks by gunmen," he said.
The situation had been made worse by the withdrawal of police special forces from the community following a clash between the officers and commercial motorcyclists a few weeks ago, Mr Kwaghhemba said.
"Only a few mobile police officers are here now," he said. "But they are not cooperating with the people and there is not much that they could do if there is any attack."
Mr Ayeni did not immediately reply a message from PREMIUM TIMES seeking to know when soldiers would be deployed back in the community.
Benue police commissioner, Fatai Owoseni, and spokesperson, Moses Yamu, did not say when police special forces would be deployed back in the community when asked by PREMIUM TIMES Friday morning.