STATE DEPARTMENT —
Human Rights Watch says Nigeria's military is covering up attacks on civilians during its fight against Islamic militants in the north.
The rights group said satellite images following last month's violence in the northern Nigerian town of Baga show more than 2,000 buildings destroyed. Nigeria's military says only several dozen homes were burned during an attack by the militant group Boko Haram.
Deputy Washington Director Sarah Margon has doubts.
"It doesn't look like it was done with rocket-propelled grenades, which is what Boko Haram tends to use," she said. "But instead going house-to-house with fire."
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has ordered an investigation into the violence.
Margon said the discrepancies suggest there is something to hide.
"There's been very different information, and it would seem to us that something is being covered up in fact," Margon stated.
State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said U.S. officials are closely studying the Human Rights Watch findings.
"President Jonathan has called for an investigation, including ascertaining that security forces, namely the Joint Border Control Forces in the area, had adhered to the rules of engagement," he explained. "So we urge a full investigation into these attacks, and that those responsible, both military and others, be held to account."
Boko Haram appears to be stepping up its attacks with more lethal weapons.
"The increasing sophistication of arms, of tactics I think is extremely worrying," said Jennifer Cooke, the director of Center for Strategic and International Studies Africa. "When you're confronted by people with rocket-propelled grenades you're going to need a strong military response. The great danger is that in doing so the Nigerian security forces are alienating the communities in which Boko Haram is embedded and making it almost impossible to get cooperation and intelligence from those communities," she added.
Margon said that creates a cycle of violence in which no one is held to account and authorities too easily shift blame.
"We have yet to see in this case of Baga how far up the chain any indiscriminate attacks may go. But certainly a full and complete and independent investigation is going to be very important to showing that the military is going to be held to account," she stated.
While encouraging Nigeria to address economic inequalities in the north, the Obama administration is backing the fight against Boko Haram, said Secretary of State John Kerry. "They are facing some tough violence in the northern part of the country, which we condemn and we join with them in helping to fight against extremism," said Kerry.
Cooke said there is only so much Washington can do. "We have to admit the limits of our influence in a place like Nigeria. There's a huge political game going on with Nigeria," she noted. "Goodluck Jonathan is looking to his next election."
The suggestion that Boko Haram's rebellion is rooted in underdevelopment is not a popular message for politicians, who worry that responding with greater social spending could encourage insurrection in other poor areas of the country.