Secretary of State John Kerry issued a carefully worded warning on Tuesday to Nigeria’s military against committing human rights abuses as it goes about battling the Islamist militant group Boko Haram.
Nigeria’s military has long been dogged by evidence that it has killed civilians, tortured prisoners and, more recently, detained mothers, children and other victims who had been kidnapped by Boko Haram.
“It is understandable in the wake of terrorist activity, some people are tempted to crackdown on everyone and anyone who could theoretically pose some sort of a threat,” Mr. Kerry told a group of religious leaders and politicians during a visit to Nigeria on Tuesday. “I caution against that today. Extremism cannot be defeated through repression.”
Worries about human rights abuses have in the past undercut Nigerian efforts to buy American weapons they say they need to defeat Boko Haram. Besides abuses tied to its fight against Boko Haram, activists have accused the military of gunning down at least 300 members of a Shiite Muslim sect in the northern city of Zaria without justification.
Relations between Nigeria and the United States have grown warmer under President Muhammadu Buhari, who was elected last year. American surveillance drones based in Cameroon now fly missions over parts of Nigeria where Boko Haram is active.
Mr. Kerry dedicated much of his speech to urging Nigeria to employ and educate young people so they do not join groups like Boko Haram. Mr. Kerry decried Boko Haram’s “nihilistic view of the world.”
“They actually teach girls how to hold a bomb under their armpits so that the explosives remain steady,” Mr. Kerry said. “We might as well ask how anyone could be brainwashed into such atrocities, but because the children are so young and because the abuse that they suffer is so great, even brave souls can be broken.”
Mr. Kerry’s comments came as the Nigerian military said on Tuesday that airstrikes had killed and wounded several top Boko Haram commanders in the Sambisa Forest in the country’s northeast, where militants have been hiding for months.
Among the wounded was Abubakar Shekau, who took the helm of the group after the death of its founder in 2009, according to Col. Sani Usman, a military spokesman. The military’s attack took place on Friday.
At least three other top commanders were killed in “the most unprecedented and spectacular air raid,” the military said in a news release.
The military has claimed to have killed Mr. Shekau before. Leaders of the militant group are thought to be hiding deep in the forest. Reports of deaths or injuries to commanders were impossible to confirm independently.