Dozens of people – including two policemen – are believed to have been killed by security forces in south-eastern Nigeria during commemorations to pay homage to the victims of the 1967-1970 Nigerian civil war, also known as Biafran war. There are contrasting reports on the death toll, ranging from seven to 40.

The alleged incidents occurred on 30 May as people were holding events to remember what many refer to as the "genocide" or "holocaust of the Biafran people". It has been alleged that security forces entered St Edmund's Catholic Church, Nkpor Agu, in Anambra state, and opened fire on worshippers, accusing them of belonging to the Indigenous People of Biafra (Ipob) group. At least five people were killed in the incident.

Another 35 are believed to have been killed when security forces allegedly opened fire on Ipob members in Onitsha, Nkpor and Ogidi, the Vanguard newspaper reported.

AFP reported that at least seven people – five civilians and two police officers – were killed during clashes between pro-Biafra demonstrations and security forces in Asaba, Delta state.

An Ipob coordinator who witnessed some of the alleged violence on demonstrators in Anambra, told IBTimes UK security forces used tear gas and fired shots in the air to intimidate people, who ran away. "I witnessed a section, as the attacks were coming from all directions. Our people who were camped at a school in Nkpor Uno were attacked and many people were shot and three died," the source explained.

"The Nigerian military and police arrived at Nkpor park where some of our people ran for cover and started firing tear gases and firing gun shots into the air. At some point they aimed directly at our people, causing them to run for safety. The army arrested those who could not escape. Dead bodies in our possession are nine. The Nigerian forces took almost all the dead bodies. We tried to rescue the injured, but the shooting was too much," the source continued.

Information 'incorrect'

A spokesperson for the army denied the reports circulating on social media, telling IBTimes UK that the information was incorrect. Spokespeople for the defence and the police have not responded to a request for comments on the allegations.

The Anambra state government said the protest organised by Ipob was illegal as the organisation had failed to obtain permission by the police.

On 31 May, the Inspector-General of Police (IGP), Solomon Arase, ordered security forces to disarm Ipob members who, he said, had planned to carry out attacks on police members.

"The IGP noted that the targeted attacks on police personnel, who have been performing their statutory functions in the most professional and civil manner since the latest resurgence disorder, portrays the Ipob activists who are orchestrating the insurrection as having crossed the threshold in their misguided attempt to test the common will of the nation," read the statement.

"IGP Arase," the statement continues, "while condemning the killing by members of Ipob, also directed the arrest of any member of the group found in possession of firearms and bring such to deserved justice. He added that all Ipob activists arrested in connection with the killing of the policemen should be charged to court for murder."

Nigeria's security forces have often been accused of violent acts against "unarmed" and "peaceful" pro-Biafran protesters, claims authorities strongly deny. In an exclusive report by IBTimes UK published in February, Amnesty International confirmed that Nigerian security forces had used excessive force against pro-Biafran protesters on some occasions.

Nnamdi Kanu and his wife Uchechi
Pro-Biafran leader Nnamdi Kanu with his wife Uchechi Okwu-Kanu Uchechi Okwu-Kanu / Facebook

Pro-Biafran movement

The Biafran territories were forcibly annexed to modern-day Nigeria during British colonisation, which ended in 1960. Following two coup d'etats and the 1966 massacres of Igbo people in northern Nigeria, the contested Biafran territories, under the leadership of military officer and politician Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, seceded from Nigeria and declared independence on 30 May 1967.

The Biafran Republic was reannexed to Nigeria in 1970, but breakaway calls have continued since.

The pro-Biafran movement has gained renewed momentum following the arrest of Nnamdi Kanu, one of the leaders of the movement, in October 2015. Kanu, Ipob leader and director of UK-based Radio Biafra, is standing trial on six counts of treasonable felony charges.

The Nigerian government has always maintained that Nigeria's unity was a priority for the country and that although peaceful pro-Biafran protests were welcome, demanding the breakaway of the Biafran territories went against the constitution.

Biafran government in exile
A supporter of Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) holds a Biafra flag during a rally in support of Ipob's leader Nnamdi Kanu Reuters