Some 20,000 people who live in Warri South and southwest local government area, in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria, are caught in cross fire between the Joint Task Force (JTF) and armed groups. Thousands have fled from their communities and are unable to return to their homes.
The JTF offensive began on 13 May 2009 after the JTF was reported to have been attacked by armed groups in Delta State. The JTF have been conducting land and air strikes on communities across the Warri south and south-west local government areas where the Nigerian government believes the camps of the armed groups are located. Hundreds of people are feared dead.
The JTF attacked several communities of the Gbaramatu Kingdom, including Okerenkoko and Oporoza on 15 May, using helicopters equipped with machine guns. Around 500 people had gathered In Oporoza for a yearly festival that was being celebrated in several communities of the Gbaramatu Kingdom.
An eyewitness who attended the festival said: "I heard the sound of aircraft; I saw two military helicopters, shooting at the houses, at the palace, shooting at us. We had to run for safety into the forest. In the bush, I heard adults crying, so many mothers could not find their children; everybody ran for their life."
The JTF is composed of troops of the army, navy, air force and the mobile police, and was set up in 2004 to restore order in the Niger Delta. The JTF attacks on the communities in the area are continuing on a daily basis, reportedly because they believe the armed groups are hiding in the communities.
Exact casualty figures following the attacks are as yet unknown. According to reports received by Amnesty International, hundreds of bystanders, including women and children, are believed to have been killed and injured in exchanges of fire between armed groups and the JTF.
Many houses in the communities have been set on fire and destroyed by the military. People are still in hiding in the forest, with no access to medical care and food. The main method of transportation for these communities is by boat. However, according to reports, people attempting to travel by water are being targeted by the JTF or members of the armed groups.
"The JTF and armed groups should not use force in a way that results in human right[s] abuses, they should not forcibly displace people, and they must ensure free access to those in need of medical care," said Amnesty International's Vernoique Aubert.
Poverty, corruption and the presence of oil, arms and gangs, have made the Niger Delta a very volatile region. In the past years, armed groups and criminal gangs have explicitly sought to control resources, and have engaged in acts of violence. This has led to an increase in violent confrontations between the armed groups and the JTF.
The JTF has frequently been accused of using excessive force when attacking armed groups and gangs. Bystanders from local communities have often been injured or killed. In August 2008, following an attack on the JTF by armed groups, at least four people were killed when the military raided the village of Agge in Bayelsea State.
In August 2007, the JTF intervened in a clash between two rival gangs in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, using helicopters and machine-guns and killing at least 32 gang members, bystanders and members of the security forces.
Amnesty International: www.amnesty.org.uk/