NIGERIA: Thousands flee violence, hundreds suspected dead
ABUJA, 22 May 2009 (IRIN) - Thousands of civilians have fled their villages in Nigeria’s Delta state after government troops launched an offensive against militant groups in the state on 13 May.
Villagers in Delta state’s Gbramatu kingdom reported Oporoza and Okerenkoko villages being attacked with heavy machine-gun fire from low-flying helicopters on 15 May. Eyewitness accounts reported at least 100 bodies, according to Amnesty International’s Nigeria campaigner Lucy Freeman.
The Nigerian Red Cross estimates that 1,000 displaced people have fled to Ogbe Ijoh – capital of Warri south government area – where they are sheltering in a primary school and hospital.
Witnesses report that about 3,000 people have fled and Amnesty International estimates that as many as 10,000 could be on the move.
Patricia Okolo from Okerenkoko told IRIN from Ogbe Ijoh: “I had to run from my home. I did not take a single item with me. I have 10 children but I don’t know where any of them are. I could not count the number of people who were killed or injured but there were many. I could not even count.”
“I don’t know where my husband is. I am the only one who got here.”
Most of the displaced are women and children as most men are too frightened of being attacked or killed, said Nigerian Red Cross officer Ecocity Egbero from Ogbe Ijoh. Many men are hiding in the forest with no access to clean water, food or shelter, he said.
Joint Task Force troops, made up of the army, navy, air force and mobile police, launched an offensive on communities across Warri south and southwest government areas on 13 May after JTF troops were reported to have been attacked by armed groups in Delta state, according to Amnesty International.
In response, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), an umbrella group representing a number of militant factions, declared an “all-out war” in a 15 May press statement. The militant groups claim they are fighting for more local control of oil wealth in the impoverished region.
|I could not count the number of people who were killed or injured but there were many. I could not even count
“Civilians are bearing the brunt of this violence. We are very concerned about bystanders who have been killed, injured or displaced,” said Amnesty’s Freeman.
Community members from targeted villages say military forces were searching for militants.
Some villagers told Amnesty International they were attacked while fleeing on boats – the only way to get away from the site of the violence. The delta is made up of a dense network of freshwater creeks, much of it accessible only by boat.
The Nigerian Red Cross’s disaster management coordinator, Attah Benson, told IRIN it was still too dangerous for NGOs to approach the affected area. “We are able to access only those who are on their way out.”
The Red Cross is working with the International Committee of the Red Cross, National Emergency Management Agency and other agencies to get food, water, blankets, utensils and hygiene kits to people in need, said Benson.
“They [the displaced] need food, water, shelter and blankets to relieve their suffering,” the Red Cross’s Ococity told IRIN. “They are sleeping on the bare floor. They are traumatised as a result of the attacks and what they went through in the mangroves while escaping.
“You can see the frustration in their faces. Hunger is taking its toll because most of them did not have anything to eat for four days.”
A local official said government troops have not attacked communities but have gone after what he called criminals. Col Rabe Abubakar, military spokesman in the Niger Delta, told IRIN: “Anybody who says we attacked a community let him come and show us which community we attacked. We are raiding, based on our information, the militants’ hideouts and arms dumps.”
He added: “The essence is to secure the region. We are not targeting any group or any community or individual. We are targeting criminals who carried out these heinous, uncivilised and barbaric attacks.”
The offensive suggests a “worrying change in direction” in the government’s approach, Freeman told IRIN. In recent months a government committee recommended amnesty
for some politically-motivated militants.
In February 2009 the government of President Umaru Yar’Adua assured the UN Human Rights Council it would refrain from military offensives in the Delta region because of the risk of loss of innocent lives.