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Page last updated at 17:29 GMT, Thursday, 21 May 2009 18:29 UK

Thousands flee Nigeria Delta fighting

Warri refugees

By Andrew Walker
BBC News, Warri

Thousands of refugees from a remote area of a Nigerian oil-producing state have fled fighting between the military and oil rebels; sleeping in the swamps and too afraid to go home.

When military helicopters buzzed over the small town of Oporoza, in Nigeria's Niger Delta, it was just two days after 19-year-old Happiness Michael had given birth.

The helicopter gunships hovered low over a crowded street, where people had gathered to celebrate an annual festival, and opened fire with machine guns and rockets, according to several accounts.

Happiness Michael and her baby
Happiness Michael and her baby fled into the bush

"I saw bombs and fire and shooting, we fled," the teenager told the BBC.

The assault last Friday was the beginning of a six-day campaign by the Nigerian military's Joint Task Force (JTF), which is in charge of security in the Niger Delta, fighting oil militants.

Nigeria is one of the world's major oil exporters but in recent years, militant attacks have cut production by about 20%.

Now the military says it is determined to stop the sabotage of oil installations and kidnapping of oil workers though local civilians say they are paying the price.

'Terrified of the military'

But the military action in the region, home to much of Nigeria's oil industry, will continue, commanding officers have said.

Happiness took her baby and ran into the swampy forest along with thousands of other villagers.

They slept in the bush for five nights before they could make their way to the outskirts of the Delta State city of Warri.

Chief Alfred Bubor
Actually, I was on the toilet when I heard this boom, and all the lights went and the wall started falling down
Chief Alfred Bubor

When the BBC found them, they were in a group of around 150 other women and children pressing against the bars of a shop, trying to get a hand-out of food.

Their elderly parents, husbands, brothers and eldest sons are still in the bush, terrified of the military.

Hundreds more, possibly thousands of refugees in total, are scattered in forests and swamps across the area.

A lucky few have made it to the relative safety of family homes in Warri.

Some have also been killed, the women say, by the military as they sweep the area on what the military calls a cordon and search mission.

"Many are dead, they die. Finish!" said Alice Christopher.

"When the bombs come we scatter, I cry-cry, I tire-tire," she added.

Different versions

There are two versions of events leading up to Friday's assault on Oporoza in the Gbaramatu kingdom of Delta State.

Government Tompolo
Mend leader Government Tompolo is now on the run

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend) says the military launched an unprovoked attack on a militant camp in the riverine area, west of warri.

The JTF says one of its patrols was ambushed.

The military has been making sweeps through the area looking for militants and 15 hostages taken from a petrol tanker hijacked by Mend on Thursday.

They are also searching for 12 soldiers missing in action during the fighting.

People who have fled to Warri say the military is systematically torching villages as they go, but the commander of the JTF denies this.

It is impossible to verify what is happening in the area, as the military have stopped all boats - the only way to get to the Gbaramatu kingdom - from leaving Warri.

It is also impossible to know how many have died - the military are not giving any figures.

'Thousands of bullets'

Chief Alfred Bubor, a traditional leader and spokesman for the kingdom of Gbaramatu, was wounded in the helicopter attack.

Gen Sarkin Yakin Bello
How can an innocent person be in [militant leader Government] Tompolo's house, among the militants
Gen Sarkin Yakin Bello

Preparations were being made in the village for 600 dancers to come and perform in front of the king's palace when the assault happened, but Mr Bubor had excused himself from the gathering.

"Actually, I was on the toilet when I heard this boom, and all the lights went and the wall started falling down," he told the BBC in his house in Warri.

The 76-year-old was shot in the hand, injured on the head by falling blocks and scarred by shrapnel on his chest.

He emerged from the wrecked house and saw the helicopter fly past.

"I could see the pilot flying the helicopter, there were thousands of bullets flying into the building," he said.

JTF commander Gen Sarkin Yakin Bello told journalists that the military was targeting oil militants loyal to the commander of Mend, the amazingly named Government Tompolo.

He said the helicopters were firing at a guest house belonging to Mr Tompolo.

"How can an innocent person be in Mr Tompolo's house, among the militants?" said Gen Bello.

Mr Tompolo is now on the run and the military say they will not stop until they have found him, and the soldiers missing in action.

Joint Task Force
The military showed reporters what they seized from a guest house

They say they seized weapons from the guest house, and showed journalists a stock of rusty rifles, heavy machine guns, anti-aircraft ammunition, and buckets of bullets.

"It is worth it, because if we remove one criminal, then the whole level of criminality in the region will be reduced," said JTF spokesman Lt Col Rabe Abubakar.



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