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Nigerians in Bakassi Panic Following Troop Withdrawal

The withdrawal Monday of Nigerian soldiers from the disputed Bakassi peninsula appears to have thrown the mostly Nigerian residents of the area into panic as they ponder their future under Cameroon rule. The anxiety stems from delays with their resettlement in Nigeria.

Under an agreement reached last June by the leaders of Nigeria and Cameroon, Nigerians living in Bakassi peninsula were to choose between remaining under Cameroon authority or resettlement in Nigeria.

Given the stormy relationship between the Nigerian residents and the Cameroon military in the past, most residents opted for resettlement in Nigeria.

But the resettlement has been rather slow, creating panic among Nigerians on the peninsula, who fear retribution from the Cameroon military, which occupies most of the area following Monday's pullout by Nigerian troops.

"I am very bitter and my people are very bitter because we know the withdrawal of the army will bring in the Cameroonian gendarmes [soldiers]," said Chief Edet Okon, the local chief of Bakassi. "They will come and when they come, we will be opened to them. We really do not know what to do. Our people are anxious to leave this place and leave their property and just have their safety. The lives of human beings are involved in this matter and the world is just watching because there is no actual physical war as in Iraq or Lebanon. That is what baffles me. There is no arrangement on ground, even the Red Cross, no boats even to carry people out of the place. If you look at my palace now, it is filled to the brim. I do not have the capacity to contain this kind of situation."

The Nigerian Red Cross is offering to address some of the urgent humanitarian concerns as Secretary-General Abiodun Orebiyi stated in a VOA interview.

"What we are going to look at would be the issue of humanitarian needs. Their relocation, shelter and their basic needs and also how we are really going to sustain them for some time, for them to stabilize and get used to their new environment," he said. "So, I don't think we are likely to see a humanitarian crisis. You will expect that people who have been uprooted from their roots will surely need assistance."

Nigerian soldiers completed their withdrawal from Bakassi, as stipulated by a U.N.-mediated deal that provides for a two-year interim period leading to the transfer of full sovereignty to Cameroon.

Some Bakassi groups are challenging the handover and are threatening violence to frustrate the process.

An estimated 300,000 Nigerians live in the disputed territory, most of them are fishermen. The International Court of Justice ruled in 2002 that the oil-rich peninsula belonged to Cameroon.