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Nigeria’s security forces have been carrying out their biggest co-ordinated operation for more than a decade – and possibly since the Biafran war – in the Niger Delta this month, using helicopters, aircraft and gunboats as well as three battalions of ground troops to try to flush militants and criminal gangs out of the creeks around Warri.
The military says it has destroyed camps belonging to Government Tompolo in Delta state which were seen as a key training ground for rebel fighters and a hub of oil bunkering – the theft of industrial quantities of crude oil worth millions of dollars a day – in the western delta.
Major-General Sarkin-Yaki Bello, who commanded the operation, has said he ordered a pinpoint helicopter attack on Tompolo’s home in the village of Oporoza on May 15. Local residents said a traditional festival was being held at the time and that hundreds fled into neighbouring communities. They say innocent civilians were killed.
Some Ijaw community leaders have accused the military of a targeted ethnic campaign as soldiers entered remote communities in the delta’s mangrove creeks to try to hunt down suspected gang members believed to have gone into hiding.
Rebels fighting for greater control of Nigeria’s oil wealth have raised the stakes in their campaing of bombings and kidnappings by threatening to extend attacks to offshore oil installations. Nigeria’s most prominent militant group earlier announced the launch of an “oil war” against oil companies and security forces in the restive Niger Delta. The four-days of fighting since the announcement have been the heaviest since the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta began its campaign of violence against the oil sector in early 2006. International oil markets, depressed in recent days by the impact of the credit crisis on the global economy, finally began taking notice of the escalating violence in Nigeria’s oil-producing region on Wednesday.
Security sources say more than 100 people may have been killed by the fighting, which has spread to at least seven villages in Rivers state.