LAGOS (AFP) – At least nine people were reported killed and houses were found burned after military raids in a Nigerian village targeting an alleged gang leader, an activist who visited the area said on Saturday.
Death tolls have varied widely following Wednesday’s raids in an area of the Niger Delta, the country’s main oil-producing region. Amnesty International rights group said it had received reports of scores killed.
“The community people told me seven persons were buried against their tradition,” said Miabiye Kuromiema, president of the Ijaw Youth Council, a rights group in the Niger Delta, the country’s main oil-producing region.
“There are another two other persons who are in the morgue.”
Kuromiema, who visited the village of Ayakoromo on Friday, was looking into reports of more deaths and that victims included innocent civilians.
He also said it appeared more than 30 houses were affected, including some that were burnt and others that were shot at.
“It’s clear that people probably could have died,” said Kuromiema. “From stories we heard, some got burned in houses.”
He could not provide a precise number of those who fled from the village.
Kuromiema cautioned that he was still gathering details and seeking to verify information that would later be included in an official statement. He also wanted to review video taken during his visit.
He could not say who was responsible for the reported deaths or the damage to the houses.
Militants have claimed scores of civilians were killed in raids this week targeting John Togo, who authorities say is a leader of a criminal gang responsible for piracy, robberies and rape.
The military joint task force carrying out the raids, known as JTF, has denied killing civilians, though acknowledged that buildings in the community were caught up in the raids.
“Only the identified camps were targeted,” a statement late Friday said.
“However, the adjourning buildings became part of (the task force’s) target when fleeing criminals took over the buildings, made them defensive positions and fired at JTF troops … .”
The statement said the military facilitated Kuromiema’s visit as a show of good faith, which the rights leader confirmed.
Kuromiema said a camp appearing to belong to Togo — he saw the initials JT written on the outside — was located “a couple of thousands of metres” away from the community and had been taken over by the military.
There was a major military presence throughout the area, he said.
Amnesty International said in a statement it had received reports of scores killed and hundreds displaced.
“Exact casualty figures are unknown,” it said. “However one eyewitness counted 15 bodies in the community, including men, women and children.
“Another eyewitnesses in a neighbouring community said they saw over 20 bodies, including women, being offloaded from gun boats by the JTF and transferred to military vehicles before being taken away to an unknown destination.
“It is not know how many of them were killed in Ayakoromo.”
The Niger Delta is a vast region of creeks and swamps, making it difficult to immediately verify any of the claims. Kuromiema said visits to the village would not be possible without a military escort.
Authorities say those they are pursuing in the Niger Delta are criminals claiming to be militants as cover for criminal activities.
There have long been murky links between criminals and many of the Niger Delta’s self-described militants, who say they are fighting for a fairer distribution of oil revenue.
Criminal gangs have carried out scores of kidnappings for ransom in the region, with many foreign oil workers among the victims.