WARRI, Nigeria â€” Nigerian warplanes bombed a village near a militant camp and soldiers opened fire with machine guns, killing as many as 150 people, human rights activists and witnesses said Friday.
Oghebejabor Ikim, national coordinator for the Forum of Justice and Human Rights Defense, told The Associated Press civilians have suffered a heavy toll in the military operation that began Wednesday. He said as many as 150 had died, though he could only offer a list of 14 names of those dead who have already been identified. The lawyer said many people remained hiding and mourning in the region’s winding creeks.
The attacks on a village in the Niger Delta continued Friday as the military tried to kill or capture a militant called John Togo who runs the attacked camps and who officials said gave up on a government-sponsored amnesty program. The amnesty program for militants brought an uneasy calm to a region vital to U.S. oil supplies, which is now threatened by new militant attacks and government offensives that put civilians at risk.
A military spokesman said Friday that the operation was ongoing, but declined to comment further. The military has declined to offer a death toll for the operation targeting the village of Ayakoromo and surrounding communities.
“I can describe it as a killing spree of innocent civilians,” Ikim said. “Houses have been burnt. Women are raped. There are killings. Is that how to get at John Togo?”
There appeared to be confusion about whether those in the village of Ayakoromo initially fought back when the military began their assault Wednesday afternoon. Ikim said all of Togo’s fighters left the area before the fighting, while a witness in a nearby village told the AP by telephone that “there was shooting from both sides.”
The witness said the military has returned several times to launch new assaults, calling in heavy machine gun fire from patrolling Navy vessels and dropping bombs from military aircraft. One attack took place Friday morning, he said.
“We could only hear the sound — boom boom boom — everywhere,” he said. “Everyone (was) running.”
The man spoke on the condition of anonymity as he remained fearful of being targeted by military forces for speaking publicly about the attacks.
In a statement released Friday, Amnesty International said one eyewitness who spoke to its researchers said he saw soldiers transferring more than 20 bodies from boats to military vehicles.
“Indiscriminate attacks by the Nigerian military such as the one reported on Wednesday are wholly unacceptable,” said Lucy Freeman, a Nigeria researcher for the organization. “The Nigerian government has a duty to protect its citizens and disproportionate attacks such as this jeopardize the lives and livelihoods of the country’s poorest and most vulnerable people.”
An independent assessment of the damage and casualties from the attack has yet to be done. The Nigerian Red Cross and other activists have been unable to reach the targeted communities as the military has sealed off the area.
Video aired Thursday afternoon on the state-run Nigerian Television Authority showed soldiers in flak jackets and helmets traveling by boat through the muddy creeks. The network also showed images of what appeared to be suspected militants in custody and of a soldier setting a hut ablaze with a lighter.
Antigha previously said soldiers recovered anti-aircraft guns, rocket-propelled grenades, automatic rifles and dynamite from the three camps targeted in the attack.
Soldiers have yet to apprehend Togo. Casely Omon-Irabor, a lawyer representing Togo, said Friday and his fighters were “far away in the high seas” and not in the region being attacked. The lawyer said the government had planned a meeting to negotiate a settlement with Togo, but instead launched a military operation against him.
“I do not see any reason why we are calling for truce and trying to get peace and yet a party for that peace has breached that agreement and gone into war again in the creeks,” Omon-Irabor told the AP.
Militants in the Niger Delta have attacked pipelines, kidnapped petroleum company employees and fought government troops since an insurgency began in 2006. The attacks cut drastically into crude production in Nigeria, an OPEC-member nation that is one of the top suppliers of crude oil to the U.S. Production has risen back to 2.2 million barrels of oil a day, in part because many militant leaders and fighters accepted the amnesty deal.
But not all have been pacified. The main militant group in the region, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, has promised to carry out new attacks after claiming responsibility for kidnapping seven expatriate workers in November from offshore oil rigs operated by London-based Afren PLC and Exxon Mobil Corp. The group, known by the acronym MEND, also claimed a dual car bombing that killed at least 12 people and wounded dozens more during an Oct. 1 independence celebration in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja.
Togo formerly served under repentant MEND leader Government Tompolo, who accepted the amnesty deal offered last year. However, Togo drifted away from Tompolo as money promised to fighters by the government never trickled down, Omon-Irabor said.
“Some of the ex-militants feel shortchanged,” the lawyer said.