ABUJA, Nigeria – The seven members of the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) who died in a fatal plane crash in Nigeria’s capital Abuja on Sunday were close to discovering the location of dozens of students abducted by armed men from their school in the north-central Nigeria last week, two major military sources told The Daily Beast.
The crew – led by flight lieutenant Haruna Gadzama, the captain of the aircraft, and flight lieutenant Henry Piyo, the co-pilot – was in Minna, the capital of Nigeria’s north-central state, for days, conducting collection missions. intelligence in connection with efforts to secure the release of 42 people, including 27 students. The group was kidnapped last Wednesday when armed men in military uniforms stormed the Government Science College in Kagara, killing a student in the process.
On Sunday, police received information about the location of the abductees. According to the two military sources, they flew quickly to Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Abuja to refuel their Beechcraft KingAir B350i aircraft. They were returning to Minna when the NAF said the plane reported an engine failure and crashed while trying to return to Abuja, killing everyone on board.
“They had a clue where the students were located at the time and were preparing to survey the area when the accident happened,” 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 officers “would have been able to report the exact location of all the Kagara school hijackers.”
News of the plane’s crash created anxiety across Nigeria and led to rumors on social media that the aircraft may have been deliberately touched by actors looking to get rid of the seven officers, described by the NAF in a statement as “well trained” and “Dedicated staff. ”The country’s Air Force Chief of Staff, Isiaka Amao, on Sunday ordered an “immediate investigation” in the death of the officers, who conducted intelligence gathering operations across the northern region of Nigeria, including the northeast, where ISIS-backed militants and Boko Haram operate.
“We must remain calm and wait for the result of the investigation by the military,” Nigeria’s aviation minister, Sirika Hadi Tweeted on Sunday, seeming to address the rumors that revolve around the cause of the accident. Nigerian authorities have often been accused of protecting armed groups affiliated with the Fulani tribe of the predominantly Muslim region of northern Nigeria, where President Muhammadu Buhari is from. Most of the policemen killed in the plane crash on Sunday were from southern Nigeria, a predominantly Christian region.
“Investigators will examine 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 of the Air Force [who was appointed late in January] I would like to get to the bottom of the issue. “
It is not the first time that the death 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, died of the impact of a reversing vehicle that collided with her, raising suspicions across Nigeria that she was murdered. According to NAF, Arotile was “accidentally hit” by “an excited former Air Force high school classmate while trying to say hello” inside the NAF base in the northwestern city of Kaduna. The 24-year-old had just returned from a military operation called “Gama Aiki” in the state of Niger, where she was deployed in the fight against militants supported by ISIS and other criminal gangs, known locally as “bandits”, for flying combat missions. . Her final combat mission in northern Nigeria was devastating for the terrorists she was aiming for.
Like Arotile, the seven NAF members killed in Sunday’s accident were key players in the struggle to rid northern Nigeria of bandits and jihadists. According to NAF, “while conducting Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance missions,[the officers] operated in practically all cinemas, including the Northeast, the Northwest and the Center-North. The records show that they were flying one of NAF’s three Beechcraft King Air 350is, and were undoubtedly some of the Air Force’s most experienced and reliable, who said they suffered a major blow from the loss.
“NAF would have difficulty replacing staff based on their training and experience gained over the years,” said Ibikunle Daramola, Director of Public Affairs and Information for NAF, in a press release on behalf of the Chief of Staff of Aeronautics Amao on Monday. “The Service was, however, comforted by the fact that the deceased staff did their utmost in service to the nation.”