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Niger investigates airstrike on Boko Haram that killed 36 civilians

The investigation threatens to fray relations in the multinational coalition against Boko Haram. Nigeria's Air Force is suspected of carrying out the airstrike, having allegedly mistaken the civilians for militant fighters.

Tagaza Djibo/Reuters
Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou attended a rally in support of fight against Boko Haram in Niamey on Tuesday. Tens of thousands of people marched through the city in support of the country's military following a series of attacks carried out by Boko Haram militants along the country's border with Nigeria.

Niger’s government has opened an official investigation into an airstrike that killed 36 civilians in the town of Abadam earlier this week, a move that could destabilize the multinational military force tasked with defeating the Islamic militant group Boko Haram.

On Tuesday, mourners were gathering for a funeral in Abadam when an unidentified military plane bombed them, likely mistaking them for members of Boko Haram. The village’s deputy mayor blamed the Nigerian military, Reuters reports, though his allegation remains unverified. The Nigerian government has yet to comment on who they believe is at fault.

“It's not to my knowledge and there has not been any report from our people of such an incident,” Dele Alonge, a spokesman for the Nigerian Air Forcetold the BBC.

Niger announced three days of mourning to honor the victims, starting Thursday. Its government opened the investigation after Central African heads of state finalized their plan to create a joint military strategy earlier this week, announcing that they had contributed more than half of the $100 million needed to fight Boko Haram.

The leaders called on Nigeria to allow the multinational joint task force to attack Boko Haram in the country. This would allow Niger, Chad, and Cameroon to pin down Boko Haram within Nigeria's borders ahead of a ground-and-air offensive that's due to start next month, a Niger military official told Reuters.

Coordinating the different militaries has been difficult. At the launch of the US military’s annual training exercise on Tuesday, Col. George Thiebes, a special operations commander in West Africa, said one of the biggest challenges is helping armies from different countries work together. Radio systems and finding common vocabulary even when troops speak the same language are among the hurdles facing multinational forces in Africa, he told The Associated Press.

The campaign against Boko Haram has gained momentum with a string of recent successes. Nigerian warplanes bombed training camps and equipment belonging to the extremist group in the northeastern Sambisa Forest on Thursday.

“The death of a large number of terrorists has been recorded while many others are also scampering all over the forest,” defense spokesman Maj.-Gen. Chris Olukolade said.

More friction could be caused by the praise the Chadian Army has received since joining the campaign. Known for its military prowess, Chadian troops on Tuesday successfully fought their way into the town of Dikwa, which has been overtaken by militants for the past five months. The New York Times reports:

The Nigerian Army had no official comment on the Chadian advance, but Chadian state television made note of it Wednesday evening, saying there had been heavy losses on the Boko Haram side in the fight for Dikwa, and that two Chadian soldiers had been killed.

A ranking official in Maiduguri – the Borno State governor’s security adviser, Hussaini Monguno – confirmed that the Chadians “have advanced to Dikwa.” A Nigerian military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, also confirmed the advance into the town. The Chadian push has become a sensitive point for the Nigerian military, which has admonished journalists for highlighting it.

Deciding whether to accept assistance from foreign countries became a question of pride for Nigeria once the African Union agreed to send forces last month. Nigeria has typically been the one to offer aid, not receive it.

Nigeria’s fight against Boko Haram is a major factor in the runup to the upcoming presidential election. Many, including presidential candidate Muhammadu Buhari, blame President Goodluck Jonathan for the government’s failure to stamp out the group. Mr. Buhari, a retired Army general, has promised to personally lead the fight against the militants if elected.

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