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CORRECTED-UPDATE 2-Proposed U.S. arms sale to Nigeria on 'hold' over human rights concerns -sources

·2 min read

(Corrects description of Boko Haram, paragraph 4)

By Doyinsola Oladipo and Mike Stone

WASHINGTON, July 29 (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers have put on hold a proposal to sell almost $1 billion of weapons to Nigeria over concerns about possible human rights abuses by the government, three sources familiar with the matter said on Thursday.

The proposed sale of 12 AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters made by Bell and related equipment worth $875 million is being delayed in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and in the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, the sources told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Foreign Policy reported this week that the State Department had informally notified Congress of the proposed sale but that it was frozen in the Senate committee. The package includes the helicopters, spare engines, navigation systems and 2,000 precision-guided munitions, it said.

The hold could have an impact on Nigeria's efforts to seek support to fight Islamic State West Africa Province and jihadist group Boko Haram in the northeast as well as armed bandits in the northwest of the country.

However, the hold may not hinder Nigerian military capabilities on some missions.

A U.S. government official said Nigeria recently took delivery of Embraer-made A-29 Super Tucanos, a slow-flying plane that can provide close air support to infantry much like a helicopter.

That deal, for a dozen of the turbo-prop planes, was notified under former U.S. President Donald Trump in 2017, and had a value of up to $593 million, according to Pentagon documents. A handover ceremony for those planes is slated for August, the official said.

Under normal practice, the State Department tells Congress of proposed arms sales informally in advance to give lawmakers the chance to put a hold on the proposals to raise concerns. If Congress opposes a sale after a formal notification, it can pass legislation to block it.

A State Department spokesperson said: "As matter of policy, we will not confirm or comment on proposed defense sales until they have been formally notified to Congress."

The Senate and House committees both declined to comment on the issue. A spokesman for Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari also declined to comment.

Nigeria is also battling rising armed robberies and kidnappings for ransom where thinly deployed security forces have struggled to contain the influence of armed gangs.

U.S. officials last October complained of "excessive force" by Nigerian military forces on unarmed civilians and called for restraint after soldiers opened fire on protesters demonstrating against police brutality in Lagos. (Reporting by Doyinsola Oladipo and Mike Stone in Washington and Felix Onuah in Abuja; Editing by Mary Milliken, Sonya Hepinstall, Leslie Adler and Gerry Doyle)