Port Harcourt — At least 50 people died in a clash between government troops and Ijaw militants near the oil city of Port Harcourt in southeastern Nigeria at the end of last week, witnesses and a local human rights organisation said.
However, a military spokesman denied there had been any casualities when troops raided the nearby community of Ogbakiri before dawn on Friday.
The armed forces said they shot dead 17 pirates in an unrelated incident near Warri in the west of the oil-rich Niger Delta on Saturday.
Eye witnesses, including local residents, said the security forces used gunboats, helicopters and ground troops in the attack near Port Harcourt. They said the security forces killed more than 50 people as they occupied Ogbakiri and exchanged fire with militants said to have abducted two policemen.
They accused the security forces of firing indiscriminately and burning houses in Ogbakiri and in other neighbouring communities.
"I saw no less than 30 bodies, including men, women and children, killed in Ogbakiri," Lloyd Eyime, a resident of the town, told IRIN by mobile phone.
"My house and my car parked outside were burnt," he added.
Another local resident, Wilson Jumbo, said he counted more than 20 bodies in another part of Ogbakiri.
Military officials confirmed the deployment of troops to Ogbakiri, Buguma, Bukuma and Ogbakiri, all of which are communities which have been racked by violence between armed Ijaw factions loyal to rival political groups since last year's general elections.
But they insisted that no killings took place during the operation.
"The people heard we were going to deploy and all deserted their towns," Lieutenant F.A. Achukwu, spokesman for the navy command in Port Harcourt, told IRIN.
He said a combined force of army, navy and police had been sent to rid the communities of the gangs which had been terrorising them since last year's elections ad seize their weapons.
Stevyn Obodokwe of the Niger Delta Project for Environment and Human Rights Development (NDPEHRD) told IRIN that accounts by witnesses who fled Ogbakiri showed more than 100 people had died in Friday's clashes, including 15 soldiers.
The NDPEHRD has been campaigning against the proliferation of small arms in the region. It blames politicians for arming the rival factions in the area.
However Asare Dokubo, the leader of one armed Ijaw faction in Ogbakiri said his group had been the target of Friday's raid and more than 100 people had died in the ensuing battle.
"We fought them back and killed some of the soldiers, even sinking one of their boats," Dokubo, who said he was hiding in the creeks in the area with his group, told IRIN by mobile phone.
Dokubo, the outgoing president of the militant Ijaw Youths Council, said his troubles began after he issued a statement saying last year's general elections had been massively rigged.
The elections, held in April and early May gave President Olusegun Obasanjo and his People's Democratic Party (PDP) a new term of office.
Dokubo said a gang led by a man called Ateke Tom, whom he said was sponsored by the PDP, had since made several attempts to kill him.
"We're fighting against a government which rigged elections, which does not have the mandate of the people," the Ijaw gang leader said.
In an unrelated incident, troops of a special military task force operating in the western Niger Delta said they shot and killed 17 gunmen, described as pirates who were robbing boats on the Burutu River, on Saturday.
Brigadier General Elias Zamani, commander of the military task force based in the oil town of Warri, told reporters the gunmen had engaged his troops in a shootout near the riverside village of Pere-Otugbene.
He said his troops were stepping up patrols in the waterways around Warri to rid the region of criminals who specialise in stealing crude oil from pipelines, kidnapping oil workers and harassing innocent people.
The military crackdown in the western Delta follows the signing of a new peace agreement between Ijaw and Itsekiri militants in the area on 1 June. The deal was brokered by Delta State Governor James Ibori to end several years of factional fighting between the two ethnic groups that was often linked politics and the economic benefits of controlling land used by oil companies.
Well-organised gangs of oil thieves who tap oil from pipelines, load it into barges and sell it to tankers waiting offshore, have been widely blamed for arming the ethnic militias and stirring up trouble in the region.