Nigerian authorities swept dozens of bodies into mass graves on Sunday in the grisly aftermath of last week’s Islamist uprising that killed hundreds of people, officials and residents said.
Authorities had spent two days clearing bodies off the streets of the northeastern university city of Maiduguri, which bore the brunt of the violence.
“Our evacuation team has finished removing all dead bodies from the streets of the city. Families are not forthcoming in claiming the dead bodies. Therefore, the government decided to bury them in mass graves,” Borno State government spokesman Usman Chiroma said.
“It is difficult for them to do so [claim the bodies], because their dead relations were members of the Boko Haram [sect] that waged war against the government. They just don’t want to be associated with them,” Chiroma told reporters by telephone from Maiduguri.
He also said security agents aided by local chiefs had over the weekend arrested dozens of suspected members of the radical Islamist sect still hiding in Maiduguri after the deadly clashes.
“Ward heads, called Bulama, are now leading soldiers and policemen in a house-to-house hunt for members of Boko Haram and effecting their arrests. So far, scores have been arrested and the operation is ongoing,” he said.
He did not give exact figures for the number arrested, nor how many bodies have been removed. ThisDay newspaper on Sunday put the body count at about 700.
Clashes between security forces and sect members in four northern states — Bauchi, Kano, Yobe and Borno — killed more than 600 people in five days of violence, police and witnesses said.
The government, whose forces routed diehards of the Boko Haram extremist group and killed their leader Mohammed Yusuf on Friday, has yet to release an official death toll.
The unrest began on July 26 in Bauchi State when Yusuf’s followers attacked a police station. Violence later spread to three other states in Nigeria’s Muslim north.
The fighting was fiercest in Maiduguri, Borno State’s capital, as the military bombarded the headquarters of Boko Haram, killing some 200 poorly armed militants as well as their 39-year-old leader.
Lawan Galadima, a trader in Bayan Quarters, which was home to many followers of the anti-Western sect, said: “By yesterday [Saturday] evening, all dead bodies in this area had been removed.”
“Health workers and police piled them into trucks and took them away. Now we are relieved of the nauseating stench that disturbed us in the past few days,” he said.
An official of the International Committee of the Red Cross had on Saturday raised concerns about a possible disease outbreak in the city.
“We are really worried about a possible outbreak of diseases like cholera due to the presence of decomposing corpses on the streets of Maiduguri, which is constituting a serious health risk,” she told reporters.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and local rights groups have called for an investigation into Yusuf’s killing while he was in the custody of security forces.
Lagos-based Channels television late on Sunday showed footage of Yusuf surrounded by soldiers when they arrested him and later handed him over to the police.
He was pictured standing naked to the waist. The police have denied shooting him in their custody, saying that he died in cross-fire with security forces as he was attempting to flee.
HRW also said members of the security forces should be called to account for other arbitrary killings during the five days of violent clashes.
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