ABUJA, Nigeria – The seven Nigerian Air Force (NAF) personnel who died in a fatal plane crash in the Nigerian capital Abuja on Sunday were close to discovering the location of dozens of students abducted by gunmen in his school in north-central Nigeria last week, two high-level military sources told The Daily Beast.
The crew, led by Flight Lieutenant Haruna Gadzama, the aircraft’s captain, and Flight Lieutenant Henry Piyo, the co-pilot, had been in Minna, the capital of Nigeria’s north-central Niger state, for days on missions. intelligence gathering in efforts to secure the release of 42 people, including 27 students. The group was kidnapped last Wednesday, when armed men in military uniforms raided the Government Science School in Kagara, killing a student in the process.
On Sunday, officers received intelligence on the location of the hostages. According to the two military sources, they quickly flew to Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja to refuel their Beechcraft KingAir B350i aircraft. They were on their way back to Minna when the NAF said the plane reported an engine failure and crashed while attempting to return to Abuja, killing everyone on board.
“They had a clue as to where the students were located at the time and were preparing to survey the area when the accident occurred,” one of the military sources, a NAF official, told The Daily Beast. The source added that, had the incident not occurred, he believed that air force officials “would have been able to report the exact location of all those abducted at the Kagara school.”
The news of the plane crash generated anxiety in Nigeria and led to rumors on social media that the plane may have been deliberately touched by actors seeking to dispose of the seven officers, described by the NAF in a statement as “well trained” and “dedicated staff”. The country’s Chief of Air Staff, Isiaka Amao, on Sunday ordered an “immediate investigation” in the deaths of the officers, who had conducted intelligence-gathering operations throughout the northern region of Nigeria, including the northeast, where ISIS and Boko Haram-backed militants operate.
“We must remain calm and await the outcome of the army investigation,” said Nigerian Aviation Minister Sirika Hadi. Tweeted on sunday, which appears to address the rumors revolving around the cause of the accident. Nigerian authorities have often been accused of protecting armed groups affiliated with the Fulani tribe in the predominantly Muslim region of northern Nigeria, where President Muhammadu Buhari is from. Most of the officers killed in Sunday’s plane crash were from southern Nigeria, a predominantly Christian region.
“Investigators will look at all possible causes of the accident, including foul play,” another military source told The Daily Beast. “I am sure that the new Chief of Staff [who was appointed late in January] I’d like to get to the bottom of it. “
It is not the first time that the deaths of experienced NAF officers at the forefront of the fight against dangerous militants has led to an investigation.
Last year, the country’s first female combat helicopter pilot, Tolulope Arotile, was killed by a vehicle in reverse that crashed into her, raising suspicions in Nigeria that she was killed. According to the NAF, Arotile was “inadvertently beaten” by “an excited ex-Air Force high school classmate while trying to greet her” inside the NAF base in the northwestern city of Kaduna. The 24-year-old had just returned from an operation the military called “Gama Aiki” in the state of Niger, where she was deployed in the fight against ISIS-backed militants and other criminal gangs, known locally as “bandits,” flying missions. of combat. His last combat mission in northern Nigeria was devastating for the terrorists he attacked.
Like Arotile, the seven NAF staff members who died in Sunday’s accident had been key players in the fight to rid northern Nigeria of bandits and jihadists. According to the NAF, “in the course of conducting Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance missions,[the officers] had operated in virtually every theater, including the Northeast, Northwest, and North Central. “Records show they were flying one of NAF’s three Beechcraft King Air 350is and were undoubtedly some of the most experienced and reliable. from the Air Force, who said the loss dealt him a major blow.
“The NAF would find it difficult to replace staff based on their training and experience gained over the years,” said Ibikunle Daramola, Director of Public Relations and Information for NAF, in a press release on behalf of the Chief of Amao Air Personnel on Monday. “However, the Service was comforted by the fact that the deceased personnel gave their best in service to the nation.”