The Nigerian military burned villages and forcibly displaced hundreds in its fight against Islamist insurgents in the north-east, rights group Amnesty International alleged.
The country’s military, frequently accused of human rights abuses in its decade-long fight against Boko Haram and Islamic State’s West African branch, did not respond to requests for comment.
Residents interviewed by Reuters confirmed Amnesty’s findings.
Previous allegations sparked investigations by the International Criminal Court in The Hague and hampered Nigeria’s ability to purchase arms, a source of frustration for its military’s leaders. Convictions are rare and the military repeatedly denies wrongdoing.
In the latest allegations, Amnesty said Nigerian soldiers razed three villages after forcing hundreds of men and women to leave their homes in Borno in January.
The human rights group interviewed 12 victims and reviewed satellite images showing large fires in the area and almost every structure razed.
Residents described soldiers going house to house, rounding people up, then making them walk and board trucks.
“We saw our houses go up in flames,” a woman of around 70 told Amnesty. “We started crying.”
Trucks took more than 400 people to a camp for people displaced by conflict in Maiduguri.
“The brazen acts of razing entire villages, deliberately destroying civilian homes and forcibly displacing residents on no imperative military grounds, should be investigated as possible war crimes,” said Osai Ojigho, director for Amnesty International Nigeria, in a statement detailing the investigation.
Soldiers detained six men, beating some and held them for a month before releasing them without charge on January 30, Amnesty said.
It cited Nigerian Army statements that said six Boko Haram suspects were captured and hundreds of captives freed.
“They say they saved us from Boko Haram, but it’s a lie,” said a man, according to Amnesty. “Boko Haram isn’t coming to our village.”
Three residents from two affected villages, now in Maiduguri, described the same events as in the rights group’s report.
“Soldiers called us Boko Haram and set our houses ablaze, before evacuating us,” a resident said.
Amnesty’s report was published as the military struggles to contain insurgencies, particularly by Islamic State. Last July, troops began to withdraw to larger garrisons, dubbed “super camps”, from smaller bases frequently overrun with heavy loss of life.
That put the military on the defensive and insurgents free to roam large swathes of territory and attack, often on civilians, with few repercussions.