OGBE-IJOH, Nigeria March 21 —
Exhausted, hungry villagers fleeing days of fighting in the
oil-rich Niger Delta told Friday of Nigerian soldiers and ethnic
militants firing indiscriminately, leaving scores dead.
The fighting between Ijaw and Itsekiri tribal fighters began
March 12 and has since drawn in Nigerian military troops who,
witnesses say, have launched retaliatory attacks against Ijaw
villages in the swampy region.
Ijaw militants say 50 of their fighters were killed in fighting
with soldiers in the village of Okorenkoko on Thursday. Ten soldiers
were killed in an Ijaw ambush near the village of Oporoza, Nigerian
newspapers reported Friday.
Dozens of deaths have been reported in fighting elsewhere.
One woman suffering from a shrapnel wound said soldiers fired on
Okorenkoko with machine guns. She said she fled into the forest as
soldiers torched homes and shops.
"I saw many others fall," Ruth Tinlagha said. "I didn't stay to
see if they were dead or alive."
Tinlagha and others paddled in a canoe for a night and part of
the next day before arriving in Ogbe-Ijoh, 18 miles south of the oil
port of Warri.
"I have not seen my family and I don't know where they are," she
The fighting is taking place in a remote warren of creeks and
swamps where roads and telephones are practically nonexistent,
despite the region's oil wealth.
The Niger Delta is the source of nearly all the 2 million barrels
of oil Nigeria produces daily. The violence has prompted
multinational firms to shut down facilities accounting for one-fifth
of that about 375,000 barrels a day.
Shell said Friday it could not meet production obligations after
it was forced to shut its two main export terminals at Forcados and
Bonny. Chevron made a similar declaration on Thursday.
Nigerian military officials have denied attacking civilians but
as word of fighting spread, skittish villagers were abandoning their
communities almost as soon as they heard distant gunfire.
They fear a repeat of the military massacres in 1999 and 2001
that left hundreds of unarmed villagers dead. In both cases, the
soldiers were retaliating for attacks on security force troops.
Miewarefi Abiconde, 45, fled late Monday night from Abiteye, a
village near ChevronTexaco's main oil terminal, as soon as shooting
broke out nearby.
Dragging along two toddlers, she was separated from her husband
and seven other children. Residents of a neighboring village gave
her some clothing and food the following day.
"I don't know what happened to my village," she said.
Hundreds of heavily armed soldiers have been deployed to the
delta, reinforcing 10,000 troops based there.
The conflict is rooted in a longstanding grievance by Ijaws, the
region's largest ethnic group. They accuse President Olusegun
Obasanjo's government of colluding with minority Itsekiris to draw
up unfavorable voting boundaries ahead of April elections.
More than 10,000 people have been killed since Obasanjo's
election in 1999 ended more than 15 years of brutal military
|Refugees arrive at Ogbe Ijoh
village after fleeing the conflict zone following renewed
clashes between ethnic militants and security forces in the
riverine area of the Niger Delta, Nigeria, Friday March 21,
2003. Exhausted, hungry villagers fleeing days of fighting in
the oil-rich Niger Delta told Friday of Nigerian soldiers and
ethnic militants firing indiscriminately, leaving scores dead.
(AP Photo/George Osodi)|
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