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HRW: Images Show 'Massive Destruction' in Nigerian Town

Human Rights Watch says satellite photos reveal "massive destruction" of civilian areas in a northern Nigerian town where Islamist militants and government security forces clashed last month.

The group said Wednesday the images showed 2,275 destroyed buildings in the town of Baga. It says residents blame the destruction on soldiers who allegedly ransacked the town after Boko Haram militants attacked a military patrol and killed a soldier.

The Nigerian military said last week that only about 30 homes were burned down, and blamed their destruction on Boko Haram. The Nigerian Red Cross says the recent fighting killed 187 people -- another figure the military disputes.

Human Rights Watch called on the Nigerian government to carry out an impartial investigation. Its Africa director, Daniel Bekele, said "glaring discrepancies" between reports from Baga and statements by military officials raise concerns the military is covering up abuses.

A spokesman for President Goodluck Jonathan said in a statement Tuesday that the president had commended several government agencies, including the Military High Command, after receiving a preliminary investigation report.

The spokesman, Reuben Abati, said the probe found the reported death toll "cannot be substantiated" and that there is a lot of misinformation about the situation. It further says that "a number" of buildings were destroyed, but that there are far fewer than 1,000 total houses in Baga.

Locals said the clashes began the evening of April 16 when troops surrounded a mosque that allegedly was sheltering members of the radical Islamist sect Boko Haram.

A shootout ensued, with militants using heavy weaponry, including rocket-propelled grenades. Soldiers and local officials say the militants used civilians as human shields, while residents said soldiers deliberately set fires during the attack.

Human Rights Watch said the number of buildings that were destroyed and the widespread nature of the damage point to the fires being intentionally set, and not being accidentally sparked by rocket-propelled grenades.

The posted images show aerial shots of the town on April 6 against those of the same areas on April 26, just days after the attack.

In addition to analyzing the satellite photos, Human Rights Watch says it interviewed seven Baga residents. Their accounts include seeing soldiers dragging a man out of a house and shooting him, and soldiers setting fire to homes.

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