, WARRI, Dec 6 – Nigeria\’s military acknowledged Sunday that raids in pursuit of an alleged gang leader in the main oil-producing region may have killed civilians, but insisted that only militants were targeted.
The acknowledgement came as those among about 500 people who took refuge in a warehouse after claiming to have fled the village where Wednesday\’s operation took place said their relatives were killed by military fire.
"It is possible that one or two or three of those who may have been killed could have been civilians," Lieutenant Colonel Timothy Antigha, a spokesman for the task force that carried out the raids, told AFP.
"There wasn\’t 100 percent evacuation (of the village beforehand). It is possible that among those who were not evacuated could have been civilians caught up."
Death tolls have varied widely following the raids in Ayakoromo village in the Niger Delta region. The Amnesty International rights group said it had received reports of scores killed.
Houses were also burnt, but the military said they were not set ablaze intentionally.
Some 500 people had taken refuge in a warehouse on the outskirts of the oil city of Warri and claimed to have fled the village because of the military operation.
One woman said her brother, a Catholic church leader, was among those killed by the military.
"He was shot inside his house," said Stella Oteigba, 55. "His body was badly burnt."
One man who said he was acting as a spokesman for those at the warehouse claimed dozens of people were killed.
"We are appealing to the Nigerian government to stop this madness," said Garry Stanley, who also said he was a former local government official.
"We also want them to provide relief materials to the people who have been here for the past four days. Right now our village is under military occupation. Nobody can go back there."
An activist who visited Ayakoromo on Friday accompanied by the military has said at least nine people were reported killed and dozens of houses were damaged, including some that were burnt.
Miabiye Kuromiema, president of the Ijaw Youth Council, a rights group in the Niger Delta, said he was seeking to confirm reports of more deaths and that the victims included innocent civilians.
Antigha has said troops in boats returned fire when gang members who had taken refuge in the community shot at them.
He said only small arms fire was used in the raids, with aircraft employed for surveillance, denying claims that heavier weapons were employed.
Antigha blamed the burnt houses on gunfire that he said would have ignited canisters of fuel stored there for generators or boat engines.
The fire would have spread because the fire service was not around to extinguish it, according to Antigha.
The raids targeted John Togo, who authorities say is a leader of a criminal gang responsible for piracy, robberies and rape.
An earlier military statement said the task force 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.
The Niger Delta is a vast region of creeks and swamps, making it difficult to immediately verify any of the claims. Access to the village was also sealed off by the military.
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.