Kano - Nearly 350 dead bodies were buried in a mass grave in northern Nigeria after clashes between the army and supporters of a Shi'a cleric, a public official has told an inquiry into the unrest.
The testimony of Muhammad Namadi Musa, the director-general of the Kaduna State Interfaith Bureau, lends weight to claims that at least 300 people were killed in the violence in December last year.
The clashes came after the army said supporters of the cleric Ibrahim Zakzaky, who heads the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) group, tried to kill the chief of army staff.
Zakzaky has not been seen since his home and the IMN mosque in Zaria, Kaduna state, were destroyed, prompting calls for his release and criticism that the government is flouting due process.
Musa said on Tuesday he received a telephone call on December 13 requesting him to go to the state government headquarters in Kaduna city.
He told the hearing he was then ordered to travel to Zaria with the Kaduna state commissioner of police “to find out the number of corpses and how they would be buried”.
At the Ahmadu Bello University Teaching Hospital (ABUTH) “we counted 156 corpses”, while 191 others were collected from the army base in Zaria, he said.
“Most corpses were covered with black materials and they included women and children,” he told the inquiry, saying the bodies were transported for burial in a convoy of trucks with military escort.
Earlier, the secretary to the Kaduna state government, Lawal Balarabe Abbas, said the mass burial was authorised by “a warrant obtained from a chief magistrates' court in Kaduna”.
Nigeria's military, which has been accused of human rights abuses against civilians in the insurgency by Sunni Muslim jihadists Boko Haram, has said its troops acted appropriately.
Chief of Army Staff General Tukur Yusuf Buratai in January told a separate inquiry by the National Human Rights Commission, that soldiers “acted in accordance to the rule of engagement” and their orders.
No official death toll has been released but Human Rights Watch has said “at least 300” were killed and Amnesty International put the figures at “hundreds”. The Nigerian army said that the high death toll numbers were “unsubstantiated.”
One medic at ABUTH told AFP in January he counted at least 400 bodies in the morgue on the evening of December 12 while locals said as many bodies were also littered on the streets.
The IMN has said about 730 members were unaccounted for, “either killed by the army or... in detention”.
In February, prosecutors said 191 IMN supporters in custody were charged with firearms and public order offences.
Zakzaky and the IMN have previously clashed with Nigeria's secular authorities over their quest to establish an Islamic state through an Iranian-style revolution.
The cleric has periodically been incarcerated for alleged incitement and subversion.