Drone strike mistake leaves scene of carnage and 85 dead at Muslim celebration

Bola Tinubu, Nigeria's president
Bola Tinubu, Nigeria's president, has called for an investigation into the strike - HOLLIE ADAMS/BLOOMBERG

At least 85 people were killed by a Nigerian military drone strike that mistakenly targeted a Muslim celebration in the country’s north.

Large numbers of women and children were among the dead, with Amnesty International warning the toll from Sunday evening’s aerial assault could reach as high as 120.

Military officials said the civilians were “mistakenly killed” by a drone “targeting terrorists and bandits”.

Bola Ahmed Tinubu, Nigeria’s president, ordered an immediate investigation into the “very unfortunate, disturbing and painful” incident in Tudun Biri village, in north west Kaduna State.

The incident was the latest in a series of air strikes with heavy civilian death tolls as Nigerian forces tackle marauding militia gangs and jihadist insurgents in the country’s northern regions.

The victims had been celebrating the festival of Mawlid to mark the birth of the Prophet Mohammed when the village, which sits about 100 miles from the capital Abuja, came under attack.

At least two bombs struck, the first at around 8pm.

Roofs littered with body parts

Idris Dahiru, a local resident, said that more than a dozen of his relatives had been killed.

“I was inside the house when the first bomb was dropped... We rushed to the scene to help those affected and then a second bomb was dropped,” he told the AFP news agency.

“My aunt, my brother’s wife and her six children, wives of my four brothers were among the dead. My elder brother’s family are all dead, except his infant child who survived.”

Musa Shehu, another witness, said he had lost two wives, while his youngest daughter was hospitalised with injuries.

“Body parts, mostly children, were littered on building roofs and tree branches. We packed them in empty grain bags and deposited them alongside bodies of the dead that were not seriously mutilated,” he told Reuters.

Shehu Bala, a survivor, said residents had counted 97 dead bodies, mostly those of women and children.

“Some infants who survived were taken away from their dead nursing mothers. It’s a terrible experience,” he said.

Nigeria’s National Emergency Management Agency said local reports suggested 85 people killed had been buried already, adding the search for more victims was ongoing. It reported 66 people were injured.

An army statement initially described the incident as a routine mission that “inadvertently affected” members of the community.

Maj Gen Edward Buba, a military spokesman, said aerial surveillance picked up movement of persons “synonymous with terrorists” and “the threat was eliminated to prevent the terrorists from unleashing terror on innocent civilians”.

Later, the army said the villagers had been mistaken for an armed group.

“Terrorists often deliberately embed themselves within civilian population centres in order for the civilian population to bear the consequences of their atrocities,” the military said.

“The military views every civilian death in the cause of operations as a tragedy.”

Deadly military tactic

Amnesty said the air strike had laid bare “the Nigerian military’s shocking disregard for the lives of those it supposedly exists to protect”.

“Launching air raids is not a legitimate law enforcement method by anyone’s standard,” it said.

“The air strikes on Tudun Biri village are an unlawful and excessive force on a catastrophic scale.

“It is yet another tragic example where Nigeria’s armed forces are found applying deadly military tactics to law enforcement situations.”

Almost a year ago, an air strike by the Nigerian air force killed more than 64 people at Mutumji village in north-western Zamfara State.

On Jan 24 this year, another air strike killed more than 40 civilians in north-central Nasarawa state.

Amnesty said: “The Nigerian authorities must investigate these air strikes and, where these investigations indicate criminal responsibility, prosecute those responsible and bring them to justice through fair trial.”