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Soldiers open fire in Nigeria, drawing global attention to weekslong protests

Events reached a climax in the west African country Tuesday night with reports of soldiers opening fire on protesters in Lagos.
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Nigeria witnessed scenes of violence and chaos as protests calling for an end to police brutality continued overnight and into Wednesday, despite a 24-hour curfew and multiple eyewitness reports of soldiers opening fire on protesters.

Lagos State Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu said Wednesday that one person had died at a hospital in Lagos, the country's financial capital, after a shooting in the upmarket suburb of Lekki on Tuesday, but did not confirm whether the victim was a protester.

"This is an isolated case. We are still investigating if he was a protester," he said on Twitter. Earlier he said 30 people were being treated for "mild to moderate" injuries. Of these, two were receiving intensive care and three had been discharged. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari appealed for calm in a statement Wednesday.

Protests in Lagos turned violent Tuesday night after a three-day, 24-hour curfew was announced and anti-riot forces deployed, with scores hospitalized after authorities moved to clamp down on protests in the Lekki area.

Human rights organization Amnesty International in Nigeria said in a statement it had "received credible but disturbing evidence of excessive use of force occasioning deaths of protesters at Lekki tollgate in Lagos."

Thousands of Nigerians in the oil-rich country have taken to the streets nationwide every day for nearly two weeks demanding the shutdown of a police unit, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), which they hold responsible for years of brutality, extortion and harassment in the west African country.

After growing public pressure, the government disbanded the unit on Oct. 11. But the protests have persisted with demonstrators calling for a raft of new law enforcement reforms. The hashtag #EndSARS has garnered global support online.

"It's been a peaceful protest, right from the beginning," said Eti-Inyene Godwin Akpan, 26, a local photojournalist who was at the protest at the tollgate before the Lekki bridge and witnessed events.

Akpan, who has been documenting the demonstrations for weeks, told NBC News most protesters were sitting on the ground, brandishing Nigerian flags and singing the national anthem by the tollgate near the bridge that connects the affluent area with the mainland of the city.

Image: A Lagos State Security patrol car drives through Nigerian protesters demonstrating in the streets of Alausa Ikeja
A Lagos State Security patrol car drives through Nigerian protesters demonstrating in the streets of Alausa Ikeja on Tuesday.Benson Ibeabuchi / AFP - Getty Images

Around 3 p.m. Tuesday he said he saw bridge workers near the tollgate take down security cameras and switch-off street lighting, which raised his suspicions. Hours later, Akpan said Nigerian military in uniform arrived and within seconds began shooting at the crowd.

"They came down and they started shooting," he said. "It was very, very scary."

Akpan said many fled in panic while he ran to hide in his car, watching as officers destroyed phones and cameras belonging to protesters. He eventually escaped but said he saw at least "three dead bodies" as he was fleeing the scene, fearing he too could be shot.

"I'm kinda traumatized," he said.

Protest organizer, Akinbosola, 30, who declined to give his surname fearing his safety, told NBC News he was on the "front line at the Lekki protest" when things turned ugly and said it was "unbelieve" that the army had denied deaths at the scene in the face of "damning video evidence" posted online.

Unverified images posted to social media show chaotic scenes including gunfire, widespread property damage and fires.

"They came down and started firing directly at us at exactly 6:45p.m.," Akinbosola said. "Everybody was trying to run for cover."

He said protesters had been seated, to make it clear they were "not making trouble" and were expecting the police to likely move them along.

He said he feared dozens had been killed and added that gun shots could still be heard in the Lekki area on Wednesday morning.

Like Akpan, Akinbosola said he saw lights and security cameras removed ahead of the violence and said the affair seemed "perfectly planned" by authorities.

"I was very, very lucky to be alive, people were dying right beside me," he added.

Image: A protester raises his fist and holds a placard during a demonstration to protest against police brutality at Magboro, Ogun State in southwest Nigeria
A protester raises his fist and holds a placard during a demonstration to protest against police brutality at Magboro, Ogun State in southwest Nigeria, on Tuesday.Pius Utomi Ekpei / AFP - Getty Images

The Nigerian Army has denied any deaths and on Twitter dismissed as "fake news" the shootings, adding that no soldiers were at the scene on Tuesday night in Lekki.

The army and Lagos state government had not replied to requests for comment from NBC News at the time of publication.

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Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari appealed for "understanding and calm" in a statement on Wednesday, but did not directly address the shootings. He called on Nigerians to have patience as police reforms "gather pace."

He said at least 13 states, including Lagos, had established "judicial panels" to provide redress to victims of police brutality, state-owned NTA Nigeria reported.

Babajide Sanwo-Olu said on Twitter: "As the Governor of our state, I recognize the buck stops at my table," adding that he would work to "get to the root of this unfortunate incident and stabilize all security operations to protect the lives of our residents."

He later said events had taken a turn and blamed "criminal elements" taking advantage of the orders given "not to resort to shooting as a rule of engagement."

Image: Protesters gather at the front of Alausa, the Lagos State Secretariat, while chanting a people united can never be defeated in Lagos
Protesters gather at the front of Alausa, the Lagos State Secretariat, while chanting "a people united can never be defeated" in Lagos on Tuesday.Benson Ibeabuchi / AFP - Getty Images

Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden issued a statement on Tuesday calling on Nigerian President Buhari and the Nigerian military to "cease the violent crackdown on protesters in Nigeria, which has already resulted in several deaths."

"The United States must stand with Nigerians who are peacefully demonstrating for police reform and seeking an end to corruption in their democracy," Biden said.

Celebrities including Beyoncé and Rihanna, John Boyega and Nigerian soccer star Odion Jude Ighalo have shown their support for demonstrators.

The United Nations condemned the violence on Wednesday — Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed, who is from Nigeria, added that the U.N. was "following the protests" and called on "security forces to exercise maximum restraint."

Reuters contributed to this report.