WARRI, Nigeria (Reuters) - Fighting between the Nigerian military and armed gangs in the creeks of the oil-producing Niger Delta has killed several civilians and displaced dozens more, residents said on Friday.
A military taskforce (JTF) comprising the army, navy and air force began raiding three camps believed to belong to a notorious gang leader in Delta state on Thursday, close to the Ayakoromo and Okrika communities.
Witnesses said fighters loyal to gang leader John Togo hid in buildings in Ayakoromo to escape the raids before engaging in a gun battle with the security forces. Some civilians were wounded as they fled in dug-out canoes and several were killed.
“The community reports nine (dead). They have buried seven and they have two in the morgue,” Niabiye Kuromiema, president of the Ijaw Youth Council civil rights group, told Reuters after touring Ayakoromo and interviewing villagers.
“In terms of the damage to property, we counted a little bit over 30 houses were affected by the raid,” he said.
Kuromiema said it did not appear that the military had deliberately targeted civilians but said he was studying video footage of the fighting to make a fuller assessment.
The military denied reports that more than 100 people died.
JTF spokesman Timothy Antigha said: “Only identified camps were targeted. However, the adjoining buildings became part of the JTF targets when fleeing criminals took over the buildings, made them defensive positions and fired at JTF troops.”
The military said weeks ago it would launch strikes on 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 near 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 Ayakoromo.
The security forces have a tense relationship with some local communities. The camps lie deep in the creeks and the military has at times sought to deny civilian casualties, while activists have exaggerated the death toll.
“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 told Reuters.
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.
Some reports said scores of civilians were killed.
“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.
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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Additional reporting by Austin Ekeinde in Port Harcourt and Nick Tattersall in Lagos; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Andrew Dobbie