Nigeria gave seven soldiers a state burial in the federal capital Abuja on Friday. The seven were killed while on a peacekeeping mission in Sudan's troubled Darfur region. Sarah Simpson reports for VOA from Abuja that officials used the occasion to reaffirm Nigeria's commitment to peacekeeping missions.
A brass band accompanied the soldiers' journey to their graves as government dignitaries and grief stricken family members looked on at a military cemetery on Abuja's outskirts.
Along with a Nigerian flag, the coffins also bore the African Union flag under which these troops were serving when they were shot dead in Sudan's troubled Darfur region. At least 10 African Union peacekeepers were killed in the attack last month, which African Union military officers blamed on Darfur rebels.
Nigeria contributes more troops to peacekeeping mission in Africa than any other country on the continent. Aliyu Umar, a government official who represented President Umar Yar'Adua at the burials, says Nigeria will continue to play an important role in the region.
"Nigeria will continue to play an integral role in the world and particularly in the Africa sub-region in maintaining peace and stability and where ever we are called and wherever we feel it is necessary to be, Nigeria will be there," he said.
Nigeria has won both international respect and commendation for its willingness to contribute substantial troops to peaceful military interventions in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Sudan and many of the continent's other hot spots.
Military spokesman Colonel Mohammed Yusuf says it is only natural that Nigeria, with the largest population and one of the largest fighting forces on the continent, should take an interest in regional problems.
"The strength of our military is quiet high," he noted. "Remember that we are quite populous in Nigeria. We are one of the most populous African countries - black African - in the whole world. So that is why we assist our neighbors anywhere. So it is not that we are trying to prove anything but because we have the strength [to do something]."
Nigerian forces have not always been seen as a force for good. In the mid-1990s, when Nigeria was ruled by the military, Nigerian troops were feared as much as militia fighters by the Sierra Leonean civilians they had supposedly come to assist.
In their home country, Nigerian troops are feared for their willingness to open fire at times on their own civilians.
But Yusuf said investigations into the attack in Darfur would be carried out at the highest level.
"Definitely those who committed this atrocity are known, and a high level board of inquiry is being set up to fish out those who did it," he added.
For the families it is a time of grief. Private Ajao Toyin was 25 and the youngest to die in the attack in Sudan. Through tears, his brother Olatunji remembers his younger sibling with pride.
"We are proud of him - a very intelligent boy. Very competent indeed," he said.
The men were buried with full military honors including a '21 gun salute.'
Nigeria is part of the 7,000 strong African Union mission in Sudan. The September 29 attack was the worst single incident involving AU peacekeepers in Dafur since they were deployed in 2004. The African Union mission is due to be replaced by a joint AU-United Nations force for Darfur.