Nigeria’s inspector general of police on Saturday ordered the mobilization of all officers to “reclaim the public space from criminal elements masquerading as protesters” after days of peaceful demonstrations against police brutality erupted into violence. 

According to The Associated Press, M.A. Adamu in a statement ordered colleagues to “dominate the public space” and also called for an end to the unrest that has left at least 69 people dead. 

The police inspector general also encouraged “law-abiding citizens not to panic but rather join forces with police … to protect their communities from the criminal elements.” 

Nigerians have for weeks demonstrated peacefully in the country pushing for an end to Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad over claims of police brutality and abuse. 

While the unit was officially dissolved earlier this month, protests continued following reports that some members from the disbanded unit were hired for other roles.

Tensions escalated after soldiers fired on a peaceful crowd of mostly young demonstrators singing the national anthem in the city of Lagos on Tuesday. Amnesty International reported Wednesday that at least 12 protesters were killed in the incident. 

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari drew harsh criticism for not mentioning Tuesday’s killings in a national address Thursday, with Buhari instead warning citizens against “undermining national security,” according to the AP. 

The government has insisted that the peaceful protests have been hijacked by thugs who looted and burned vehicles and businesses in the days after the soldiers opened fire on demonstrators.

Buhari has said that 51 civilians were killed in police crackdowns on protests this week, along with 11 police officers and seven soldiers.

Saturday’s police order came the same day a 24-hour curfew in Lagos loosened. 

According to the AP, Adamu on Friday told visiting lawmakers and oversight officials that “the force is more than ever before committed to police reforms and ensuring a safe and secure environment for all to live and thrive devoid of any violation of their fundamental human rights.”

Tuesday’s attack and the ongoing protests gained international attention this week, with Democratic presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenFacebook, Twitter CEOs to testify before Senate Judiciary Committee on Nov. 17 Sanders hits back at Trump’s attack on ‘socialized medicine’ Senate GOP to drop documentary series days before election hitting China, Democrats over coronavirus MORE on Thursday saying the United States “must stand with Nigerians who are peacefully demonstrating for police reform and seeking an end to corruption in their democracy.” 

“I urge President Buhari and the Nigerian military to cease the violent crackdown on protesters in Nigeria, which has already resulted in several deaths,” the former vice president continued. “My heart goes out to all those who have lost a loved one in the violence.” 

Biden added that he hoped the Nigerian government would “engage in a good-faith dialogue with civil society to address these long-standing grievances and work together for a more just and inclusive Nigeria.” 

In a statement on Thursday, Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoHillicon Valley: Treasury sanctions Russian group accused of targeting critical facilities | Appeals court rules Uber, Lyft must comply with labor laws | Biden: Countries that target US elections will ‘pay a price’ Treasury sanctions Russian group accused of targeting US critical facilities with destructive malware Trump announces opening of relations between Sudan and Israel MORE said the United States “strongly condemns the use of excessive force by military forces who fired on unarmed demonstrators in Lagos.”

“The right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression are essential human rights and core democratic principles,” he said, while also calling on the security services to “show maximum restraint and respect fundamental rights and for demonstrators to remain peaceful.”

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