LAGOS, Nigeria — A firing squad of Nigerian soldiers in camouflage executed 43 convicted armed robbers Saturday before a hushed crowd of 1,000 people at a Lagos prison execution ground, witnesses said.
Violent crime has increased dramatically in Lagos and other urban centers in Nigeria in recent months as the economic and political life in the country has deteriorated.
It was the largest number of prisoners executed in one day in Nigeria in decades and was certain to draw more international attention to Nigeria's military rulers, widely criticized for a secret coup trial which convicted a former head of state and 39 others.
Saturday's executions, which the government said were intended to crack down on a recent upsurge in violent crime, were carried out in batches at the Kirikiri maximum security prison.
Soldiers dressed in camouflage and with black shoe polish on their faces fired semi-automatic weapons to execute the convicts who were tied to stakes in three groups of 12 and one of seven.
The executions, which lasted 90 minutes, were witnessed by three doctors, who certified the deaths, an Irish Roman Catholic priest and a Muslim imam.
The government had said 53 would be executed, but Lagos Controller of Prisons C.O. Odikpo said that 10 had been granted stays of execution.
Campaign for Democracy, an alliance of human rights groups, said in a statement that the 43 bodies were taken away in a Lagos State government waste disposal van.
"The men who carried out such barbaric acts are unfit to live in human society," Campaign for Democracy added.
Abdul Oroh, executive director of Civil Liberties Organization said the executions would not curb violent crime.
"We have been executing robbers since the early 1970s and we are still having armed robbery," he said. "Executions will make the robbers harder and more violent."
An official statement released Friday said robbery had recently escalated to crisis proportions in Africa's most populous country and the convicts slated for execution included "those terrorizing innocent citizens of the state."
Oroh said the rise in robberies was due to the poor state of the economy and influx of weapons into Nigeria from the Nigerian-led ECOMOG peace-keeping operation in Liberia.
The number executed was one more than the 42 coup plotters shot secretly in 1990 for a bloody rebellion against then-military President Ibrahim Babangida.
The possibility that some of the 40 people convicted in the latest coup plot trial may face the firing squad has made capital punishment a topic of public debate in Nigeria.
It has also raised international concern about the fate of the alleged plotters, including ex-ruler Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo.
Three former British prime ministers and several African leaders have urged Gen. Sani Abacha's government to show clemency, and Washington has said it has not ruled out economic sanctions to pressure Nigeria to return to civilian rule.
Many homes in Lagos, a city of 6 million people, have been attacked by robbers who sometimes kill, maim or rape their victims in addition to carting away their property.
Robbers also have become more daring. In a June 29 incident, 10 people, including police, an army officer and civilians, were killed in shootouts with robbers that spanned different parts of the city and lasted several hours.