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Witnesses tell of soldiers, militants fighting in Nigeria

Saturday, March 22, 2003

OGBE-IJOH, Nigeria -- 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."

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 rule.


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