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The International Criminal Court's prosecutor said Friday she had enough evidence to open a full probe into ongoing violence in Nigeria by both Islamist insurgents and security forces.
Amnesty International lauded the move in a statement Friday, describing it as "an important milestone".
Fatou Bensouda's announcement comes as violence continues to wreak havoc in the West African country's northeast, where at least 76 people were slaughtered by Boko Haram jihadists two weeks ago.
"Following a thorough process, I can announce today that the statutory criteria for opening an investigation into the situation in Nigeria have been met," Bensouda said in a statement, issued at the ICC's headquarters in The Hague.
ICC prosecutors opened a preliminary investigation into the situation in Nigeria in 2010 but Bensouda now wants permission from judges to proceed to a full-blown formal probe.
Gambian-born Bensouda specifically referred to acts committed by Boko Haram, whose 11-year insurgency in the country has claimed the lives of at least 36,000 people.
Around two million others have been displaced, according to UN figures.
Boko Haram and its splinter groups have committed "acts that constitute crimes against humanity and war crimes" including murder, rape, sexual slavery, enslavement, torture and cruel treatment, Bensouda said.
But while the "vast majority" of crimes were committed by non-state perpetrators "we also found a reasonable basis to believe that members of the Nigerian Security Forces committed acts constituting crimes against humanity and war crimes", Bensouda said.
This included murder, rape, torture, and cruel treatment as well as enforced disappearance and forcible transfer of the population and attacks directed at civilians.
- 'Ample time' -
A full investigation by the ICC, set up in 2002 to try the world's worst crimes, could eventually lead to charges over the violence in the oil-rich African nation, which has been fuelled by the Boko Haram insurgency.
Bensouda said Nigeria has made some effort to prosecute "mainly low-level captured" Boko Haram fighters, while military authorities told her they have "examined, and dismissed, allegations against their own troops".
"I have given ample time for these proceedings to progress," keeping in mind the ICC's complementarity principle, which means it would only get involved in investigations and prosecutions if a member state was unable or unwilling to do so, she added.
"Our assessment is that none of these proceedings relate, even indirectly, to the forms of conduct or categories of persons that would likely form the focus of my investigations," Bensouda said.
Global rights monitor Amnesty praised the inquiry.
"After years of calling on the ICC Prosecutor to open a full investigation, this is the first meaningful step towards justice that we have seen for victims of atrocious crimes committed by all parties to the conflict in northeast Nigeria,” said Netsanet Belay, Amnesty International’s Director of Research and Advocacy.
"This is an important milestone, but it must be followed with immediate action to open a full investigation. For the victims of war crimes and potential crimes against humanity to see justice, it’s crucial that the Prosecutor swiftly begin an effective and well-resourced investigation."
- Farm workers massacred -
Boko Haram's main group claimed responsibility earlier this month for the massacre of some 76 farm workers in an area outside Borno state's capital Maiduguri, in which dozens of labourers were mowed down by gunmen on motorbikes.
Farm workers were also tied up and had their throats slit in the attack believed to be seeking revenge on villagers for seizing the group's fighters and handing them over to the authorities.
The massacre provoked widespread international condemnation including by the pope.
"I want to assure my prayers for Nigeria, where blood has unfortunately been spilled once more in a terrorist attack," Pope Francis said at the Vatican during a weekly general audience earlier this month.
Meanwhile, state security sources said 10 Nigerian troops were killed on Monday in clashes with IS-linked jihadists in Borno state.
Fighting erupted when a team of soldiers stormed a camp of Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) in Alagarno village in Damboa district.
Alagarno, which lies 150 kilometres (90 miles) from Maiduguri, is a stronghold of ISWAP, which split from the Boko Haram jihadist group in 2016 and rose to become a dominant force.
ISWAP has increasingly been attacking civilians, killing and abducting people on highways as well as raiding villages for food supplies.
Violence in Nigeria has spread to neighbouring Chad, Niger and Cameroon, prompting a regional military coalition to fight the militant groups.