Experts fear use of chemical weapon in Benue killings
Medical experts in Benue State are working to verify the alleged use of chemical weapons which resulted in the death of at least 16 people in rural Sengev community of Gwer West Local Government Area of the state.
The bodies of six victims are undergoing forensic experts’ assessment at the Benue State University Teaching Hospital (BSUTH) to unravel the actual cause of deaths.
Analysts are drawing references from the Ghouta chemical attack which occurred on August 21, 2013 in the Syrian civil war when several opposition-controlled or disputed areas of the Ghouta suburbs of the Markaz Rif Dimashq district around Damascus were struck by rockets containing the chemical agent sarin. Hundreds were killed over a short time early in the morning. The analysts say bodies of victims of the Benue incident had symptoms similar to those killed in Syria.
Witnesses to the Syria incident spoke of symptoms that showed victims foaming out of mouths and noses, people sleeping in their homes and dying in their beds, headaches and nausea. Doctors who received the roughly 3,600 victims in less than three hours after the attack in eastern Damascus reported seeing patients with frothing at the mouth, convulsions, excessive saliva and respiratory distress, among others. Though it is yet to be medically established, and while the chemical agent Sarin may not have been used in Benue, residents who witnessed killings in the state on March 15, 2014 at the border between Nasarawa and Benue said they recovered bodies which had no bullet wounds or machete cuts.
A witness, Tondo Peter, who is still taking refuge in Naka, headquarters of Gwer LGA, said the victims only foamed from their mouths, thereby fuelling the suspicion that they might have inhaled poisonous chemical substances.
“It was mid-day that the Fulani herders invaded our community. Some brave youths decided to repel the attack and pursued them towards the border, after a while when they were not returning and we decided to go and look for them and on getting there, we saw several of them dead. Of the number, 16 had no injury such as machete cuts or bullet wounds but they were foaming from their mouths while only three had machete cuts and bullet wounds. The bodies had started to decompose a few hours after the killing,” he said. Terhile Aondokuma, another resident who corroborated the story, added that some bodies were not yet found and what heightened the suspicion of use chemical weapon is the fact that they saw several other bodies of Fulani herdsmen in similar condition in the area after the fight.
“Incidentally, we met with the Fulanis when we came to evacuate the corpses of our people that were killed, they had also come to collect bodies of their own people and we saw that what they used on our people also killed those who handled the suspicious substance”, he said.
Views of medical experts
The Director of Public Health in the Benue State Ministry of Health, Dr. Joseph Kumba, though did not confirm it, heightened the suspicion when he told our correspondent that there is high probability of the use of a chemical substance known as ‘blister’ on the deceased.
“We have gotten several bodies without wounds since the current crisis began in the state. Throughout Guma and Gwer West LGAs, some people have been supposedly killed with an alleged chemical weapon. Six of the bodies at the moment are undergoing autopsy. The report when released will confirm the suspicion,” he said.
Dr. Kumba said ‘blister’ can paralyze the respiratory system, choke the victim so that breathing becomes difficult and within minutes or hours, leads to death, depending on how much of the substance is inhaled and how close the victim is from the point of contact.
“The substance can be put into artillery shells and shot into the air and it affects people who inhale it depending on how close they are. Those who come in contact with the chemical substance within 30 minutes or an hour depending on how active the substance is will be affected,” Kumba said. He noted that the attackers could not have been just local herders considering the manner of the attacks but were perhaps displaced terrorists.The Director General, National Agency for Food, Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) Dr. Paul Orhii recently urged the federal government to urgently look into allegation, saying during a visit to the state that the alleged substance used to kill people in some parts of the state was a suspected chemical weapon concealed in a canister shell.
“Chemical weapons have been used on people and for the first time, I saw it. It was concealed in canister shells,” he said.
Dr. Chinedu Nwosu, a public medical consultant, also said “From what I gathered, it appears that the symptoms included foaming from the mouth, suggestive of choking which affected their respiration as a result of inhaling a chemical substance. I do not know the nature of the chemical or its source but it is very possible that they died of chemical weapon,” Dr. Nwosu said.
However, Dr Joseph Ojobi, Head of Department of Internal Medicine at the Federal Medical Centre, Makurdi, thinks otherwise as he said the features noticed on the corpses which fuelled the suspicion of use of chemical weapons could have resulted from the poor handling of the corpses.
“I saw those bodies. A few were foaming from the mouth. The people had died at least six hours before the bodies were recovered and I think the bodies may not have been properly kept,” he argued. Ojobi further pointed out that use chemical bio-terrorism becomes suspicious when victims’ respiratory systems are affected and burns are also noticed on their bodies. He added that casualty rates from chemical weapons are usually very high, up to 1,000 and all living things including plants and animals die within the area where such substances are used. “But there is nothing of such yet to show that this is bio-terrorism,” Ojobi said.
Reacting to the development, the traditional head of the Gwer Kingdom, Chief Daniel Ayua Abomtse, believed that the attack on Sengev district inhabitants of Agagbe town, Mbabuande, Mbapa and Mbapupuu/Tswarev who directly share borders with Agatu and Apa that joined with herders’ territory on the Loko riverside of Nasarawa State was specifically designed to annihilate his people.
“16 persons were murdered in cold blood in Sengev district out of which three were shot and macheted to death and 13 others died with no wounds found on their bodies, creating a huge sense of suspicion that they might have been killed with a chemical substance. This is most alarming and needs urgent attention to save the Gwer West people from extinction,” he said. He regretted that the coastal communities bordering the Nasarawa have become preys for herders’ mercenaries as the entire people within the area have fled their homes to take refuge in Naka or other towns in the state following consistent invasion of their ancestral homes.
Benue State Commissioner for Information Justine Amase told newsmen that about 200 people have been killed with suspected chemical weapons in the state since the attack on people of the state began early this year. Let me tell you that about 200 people in Gwer West have been killed with poisonous substances. When you go through their bodies no cut is seen, neither gunshots nor bruises which show that they died of suspected chemical weapons.”
His position is supported by the vice-chairman of Gwer West LGA, Avande Mtsenga who told our reporter that the incident occurred at the border area at a point where the youths had pursued their attackers.
“The attackers who used the chemical weapon were also found dead at the point. The villagers, especially women and children had already deserted the communities following frequent invasion so when the attackers came this time, our youths who were left at home resisted them and push them back to the border river where they came from. This had happened three times. When we went the following day to evacuate their bodies, we also saw the Fulani people who came to carry their casualties. It suggested that they too died from the chemical weapon which they released on our people”, he said.
Chairman of Gwer West LGA, Mrs. Eunice Mbjawa, told Daily Trust that some deaths were linked to suspected use of chemical weapons, adding that the ongoing postmortem would end the suspicion.
However, state Secretary of the Myetti-Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN) Garus Gololo denied the involvement of his members with the allegation.
Victims of insurgent activities in Sengev community of Gwer West Local Government Area, Benue State, at a displaced persons’ camp.