The incident on Friday occurred “due to inclement weather” as the plane was landing at the Kaduna International Airport, the armed forces said in a statement, adding that the crash “claimed the lives of 10 other officers including the crew”.
Chief of Army Staff Attahiru was only appointed by President Muhammadu Buhari in January as part of a shake-up of the top military command to better fight surging violence, including the more than decade-long battle against the Boko Haram armed group.
Buhari, a former general first elected in 2015, has been under increasing pressure from allies and critics alike over his government’s handling of mounting security problems in the country.
In a statement, the president said the crash “was one mortal blow to our underbelly, at a time our armed forces are poised to end the security challenges facing the country”.
The US diplomatic mission to Nigeria called Attahiru’s death “a tremendous loss to Nigeria” on Twitter, adding: “We join Nigerians in mourning the tragic loss of life from today’s plane crash.”
Nigeria’s military has been battling Boko Haram in the northeast since 2009, in a conflict that has killed more than 40,000 and displaced some two million.
Attahiru died as reports emerged that Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau had been seriously wounded or possibly killed after clashes with a rival faction.
The army chief had once been in charge of leading the front-line offensive against Shekau’s fighters in the northeast in 2017.
Local intelligence sources said Shekau had been seriously wounded this week when the ISIL-linked Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) attacked his stronghold in the Sambisa forest in the northeastern state of Borno. The sources said Shekau was wounded when he shot himself to try to evade capture.
The Boko Haram leader has been reported killed several times since the conflict began, only to reappear later.
Nigeria’s army has said it was still investigating the reports and neither ISWAP nor Boko Haram had issued any statements about the Sambisa attack or Shekau’s whereabouts.