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Saturday, December 4, 2010

150 people killed as army raids Niger Delta

Several civilians have been killed and scores displaced during raids by the Nigerian military against armed gangs in the creeks of the oil-producing Niger Delta, local residents said on Friday.

A military taskforce (JTF) comprising the army, navy and air force began raiding three camps which are believed to belong to a notorious gang leader in Delta state on Thursday, close to the Ayakoroma and Okrika communities.

The military had warned weeks ago that it would launch strikes against suspected militant gangs in the Niger Delta, where they have in recent years severely disrupted Africa's biggest oil and gas industry, and urged civilians living in the vicinity of their camps to leave.

"My husband is dead, also my two brothers are dead. There is nowhere to go now," said Aunty Polobiri, one of scores of women sheltering in a warehouse outside the city of Warri who said they had fled the fighting around Ayakoroma.

The camps lie deep in the creeks and it was not immediately possible to confirm independently whether civilians had been killed. The security forces have a tense relationship with some local communities and in the past there have been claims of high death tolls which could not subsequently be verified.

Preye Onduku, a member of the Ayakoroma community development committee, told Reuters at least five people had been killed and about 100 had fled in dug-out canoes.

"Some of them have gunshot wounds and one of them is now receiving treatment at the general hospital in Warri," he said.

The Red Cross said it had received reports of casualties but was not immediately able to reach the scene of the fighting because of its remoteness. It said the military had since given it access and a team was traveling to the camps.

"We've seen about 30 evacuated made up of mainly women, children and new born babies in the barracks. Six are receiving treatment in the military hospital. (Their) immediate needs are food and water," a Red Cross official said.


The military has said it wants to flush out gang leader John Togo from Delta state, who security sources say is one of the more dangerous criminals in the Niger Delta, responsible for violent armed robberies, ambushes and attacks.

"These are professional soldiers who are conversant with the rules of engagement. No such thing happened and cannot be allowed during my tenure in office. We are not in a war situation," JTF Commander Charles Omorege told Reuters, when asked about reports that scores of civilians had been killed.

"A visit to the community and interaction with these people will suffice. You have my word," he said.

Resurgent unrest in the Niger Delta risks undermining the credibility of President Goodluck Jonathan in the run-up to elections next April and his administration is keen to show he has a grip on criminality there.

He is the first head of state from the oil region and brokered an amnesty with militants last August, which saw thousands of gunmen lay down their weapons and brought more than a year without significant attacks on the oil industry.

The militants say they are fighting for a fairer share of the natural wealth for the Niger Delta, whose villages are mired in poverty despite sitting amid a 2-million- barrel-per-day oil industry, the biggest in sub-Saharan Africa.

The line between criminality and militancy is blurred.

Gang leaders have grown rich on the spoils of kidnapping for ransom and the theft of industrial quantities of oil.
The JTF freed 19 hostages from a camp run by a gang leader known as "Obese" further east in Rivers state two weeks ago, including seven foreigners taken from an Afren oil rig and eight Nigerians seized from an Exxon Mobil platform.

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