Top Nigerian Shiite cleric arrested, 60 die in clashes

Nigerian Army confirms country’s top Shiite cleric is in its custody after clashes in Zaria kill 60 people

Photo by: Social Media
Photo by: Social Media

Islamic Movement leader Ibrahim Zakzaky

Nigeria’s senior Shiite leader Ibrahim Zakzaky and his wife, Zeenah Ibrahim, are in military custody, Gov. Nasir El-Rufai of Kaduna state said on Tuesday.

"They were arrested alive and are receiving medical attention," El-Rufai said in an email message that implied the couple may have been wounded.

The arrest comes after at least 60 people were killed this weekend in the northern city of Zaria, when the Nigerian Army raided the predominantly Shiite city, the director of a local hospital said on Monday.

It was initially reported that Zakzaky's wife was among the dead from the military raids, along with two of their sons and Zakzaky's deputy.

"Given the raging violence in the city, it was important that we bring him into protective custody. As at this morning, at about 0915 hours this morning we successfully executed that," Major General Adeniyi Oyebade told Reuters.

"I want to convey to you members of the press that the Shiite leader el ZakZaky is safe and in protective custody in a very secure facility. His wife is safe and also in protective custody. In the course of time he himself will be speaking to his members," Oyebade said.

Witnesses in the Shiite town say army soldiers killed hundreds of Shiite Muslims, not only 60.

The clash comes after Shiite Muslims loyal to Zakzaky’s "Shia Islamic Movement" opened fire on the convoy of Nigerian Army chief Lt Gen Tukur Yusuf Buratai this weekend.

Movement spokesman Ibrahim Musa said the military retaliated with "indiscriminate killing." His statement, made on Monday, said, "The killing was so brutal at Gyallesu [one area of Zaria] that even those injured in the shooting were identified and killed in cold blood by the soldiers."

Army spokesman Col. Sani Usman called the attack on Gen. Tukur Buratai's convoy "a deliberate attempt to assassinate."

According to a report from the Nigerian Army Corps of Military Police, Shiite militants were crawling through tall grass toward Buratai's vehicle "with the intent to attack the vehicle with [a] petrol bomb" while others "suddenly resorted to firing gunshots from the direction of the mosque."

However, Shiite witnesses told Associated Press that army soldiers were besieging their homes on Sunday, in a "pre-planned attack to assassinate the sheikh [Shiite cleric]." They said hundreds of Zakzaky's followers surrounded the house to protect the leader.

Shiites locals reportedly barricaded the roads during the clashes with the Nigerian Army over the weekend with burning tires. Residents in the area also said they are frequently harassed by the Shiites' unlawful blocking of roads for processions.

International reaction

The US Embassy in Abuja was seeking more information about the Zaria incident, according to State Department spokesman John Kirby.

Kirby added that the details of the attacks "are unclear at this point.”

He also said the US government will continue to make the protection of civilians and respect for human rights "a priority in its ongoing engagement with the Nigerian government."

Iran condemned the attack on Monday and summoned Nigeria's representative in Tehran, according to its state news agency.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called on the Nigerian government to take "prompt and serious" action. The spokesmen for Nigeria's presidency declined to comment over the matter.

Zakzaky’s movement is inspired by the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Shiite Iran.

Nigeria's Muslim population is predominantly Sunnis, and the Shiite Muslims in the most populous African nation are considered a minority, both sects have been suffering from a brutal insurgency by the Boko Haram militant group since 2009, with hundreds dying every year.

TRTWorld and agencies