The Nigerian military said it had raided three camps in the oil-producing Niger Delta believed to belong to a notorious gang leader and seized heavy weapons.
The military taskforce responsible for policing the restive region said it had attacked the three camps close to the Ayakoroma and Okrika communities in Delta state on Wednesday and the operation was continuing.
“The operation took place around 4 pm on Wednesday against three camps which we identified as John Togo’s,” military spokesman Timothy Antigha said, Reuters reports.
“So far we have recovered heavy weapons, but I cannot comment on casualties for now. If there were casualties, they were certainly not civilians because these camps were not located in the communities but outside them,” he said.
Security sources say John Togo is one of the more dangerous criminal gang leaders in the Niger Delta, responsible for armed robberies, ambushes and attacks in the swamps of a region home to Africa’s biggest oil and gas industry.
He is not thought to have fought directly for the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) militant group in the past. But since many MEND field commanders accepted amnesty last year, he is seen a potential target for MEND’s leadership to recruit and develop, security experts say.
A local newspaper reported Togo had fled during a heavy gun battle lasting several hours when he saw his fighters were being overpowered.
Antigha said he could not give any details on the whereabouts of the gang leader until the area had been secured.
The raids on the three camps are the latest in a series of such operations following the release by the military two weeks ago of 19 hostages, including seven foreigners taken from an Afren oil rig and eight Nigerians abducted from an Exxon Mobil platform.
The military taskforce has said it will continue to strike against suspected camps until all of the armed gangs are flushed out, and has warned civilians living in the vicinity to leave.
Resurgent unrest in the Niger Delta has risked 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 year, which saw thousands of gunmen lay down their weapons and brought more than a year without significant attacks on the oil industry.
But MEND has demonstrated a capacity to recruit new commanders despite being weakened by the amnesty, and by the recent military raids and arrest of some of its leaders.
MEND said in a statement emailed to media late on Wednesday that it would resume attacks on the oil industry “at the appropriate time” and said Jonathan was “clueless” as to how the problems in the Niger Delta should be solved.
Previous campaigns by MEND fighters have forced Nigeria to shut down a significant part of its crude oil production, currently running at over 2 million barrels per day (bpd), but it is unclear how much operational capacity the group has left.