Rights group Amnesty International said today it had received reports suggesting hundreds of people, mainly civilians, may have been killed in a week-old Nigerian military offensive in the oil-producing Niger Delta.
Amnesty said the highest death toll was believed to have come when the joint military taskforce (JTF) in the delta used helicopter gunships to attack communities around a major militant camp close to Warri last Friday.
“According to reports received by Amnesty International, hundreds of bystanders including women and children are believed to have been killed and injured by the JTF (military) and by the armed groups while shooting at the JTF,” it said in a statement.
The Nigerian army has repeatedly denied using excessive force and has said that no innocent civilians have been killed or displaced.
“We are applying minimum force,” military spokesman Colonel Rabe Abubakar said on Wednesday.
“There are no casualties on the civilian side. Whoever is injured must have taken part in the fighting. It means they are criminals and if we get them, we will arrest them,” he said.
Minister of State for Petroleum Odein Ajumogobia told reporters on Wednesday the government was doing all it could to minimise the loss of lives.
“The loss of lives, whether the militants or members of the armed forces, is sad. They are all Nigerians and so we will try and do what we can to prevent loss of lives,” he said.
The heavy military presence has made independent access to remote communities in the creeks around Warri virtually impossible since clashes broke out last Wednesday, making it difficult to assess the numbers of displaced or wounded.
Amnesty said thousands of people had been forced to flee their communities, echoing reports from local rights groups.
“Many houses have been set on fire and destroyed by the military. People are still in hiding in the forest, with no access to medical care and food,” the group said.
Amnesty estimated that 20,000 people living in the area were trapped by the military offensive, unable to use their usual mode of transport — travel by boat through the creeks — for fear of being targeted by the military or militants.
The areas hit by the military, including the Okerenkoko and Oporoza communities, are largely made up of Ijaws, the largest ethnic group in the Niger Delta, prompting accusations from local leaders of a targeted campaign.
Pic: Nigerian soldiers on patrol in Jos city.