Toll On Civilians Still Unclear In Delta

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With access to Nigeria's Delta creeks still restricted, the extent of the impact of military operations on Delta residents remains unclear, say rescue workers.

Niger Delta residents who fled to Warri local government area, in Delta state, are still unable to return to their homes as military forces continue to search for militants in the creeks, according to the Nigerian Red Cross representative in Delta state Ecocity Egbero.

Government soldiers launched a military operation in the creeks of Delta state on 13 May to crack down on Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) militants.

"For now the possibility of the displaced people going back soon is ruled out because the waterways are not yet open. The joint military task force is still conducting operations in the area because they say there are some militant camps they are yet to reach," Egbero told IRIN.

The Nigerian Red Cross visited some villages in the creeks, escorted by military forces, on 26 May but have not been able to return since, he said.

Delta state governor, Emmanuel Uduaghan, toured the creeks on 6 and 7 June, visiting the village of Okerenkoko, the heart of the military operation. The delegation found just four elderly men, who reportedly told the governor they did not want to leave.

Some 1,500 creek residents are still sheltering in a makeshift displaced persons camp, set up in a school at Ogbe Ijoh, capital of Warri, says Egbero.

"Some people are also hiding near the camps for fear of being arrested. They show themselves only when supplies are being made available to the displaced people."

While conditions in the displaced camp have improved, say residents, there are still no toilets, forcing people to relieve themselves in the bush or in town.

Observers and rights groups have not been able to confirm the number of civilians killed in the military operation. Some rights groups say the military was more restrained and more careful about targeting militants than it has been in past offensives.

The Red Cross's Egbero told IRIN he could not say how many died but reported seeing people with gunshot wounds in Warri.

Delta residents remain afraid, he said. "Fear rules the Niger Delta today," Egbero told IRIN.

Military operation not the answer
Even if targeted, the military offensive is not the answer, said Corinne Dufka, head of Human Rights Watch (HRW) for West Africa. "A military response will not tackle the underlying issues of poverty and inequality which continue to foment violence in the Delta region," she told IRIN.

President Umaru Yar'Adua's administration has created new ministries and committees on the Delta, but these have not yet led to change, HRW said in a letter to the President midway through his first term.

"The government must address the causes of the political discontent in the Delta, including the endemic corruption that sustains the shocking levels of poverty in the midst of tremendous oil wealth," said HRW's Nigeria researcher Eric Guttschuss.

Last Updated ( Friday, 12 June 2009 00:16 )

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