Human-rights groups in Nigeria say thousands of villagers are trapped in the mangrove creeks of the Niger Delta as security forces continue their offensive against militants in the region. The main militant group accused government forces of genocide, but the military denies the accusation.
Clashes between Nigeria's main militant group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, and the military have centered around a key camp belonging to militant leader Tom Polo. The army said its forces, using heavy gunboats and helicopters, destroyed the camp on Friday in the heaviest fighting in the area in eight months.
Militants' camps are located close to villages in the mangrove creeks, making a humanitarian crisis inevitable during heavy clashes. A human-rights campaigner in the region, Sofiri Peterside, says thousands of villagers are trapped in the mangroves.
"Majority of these settlements are fishing settlements and information at my disposal shows that these camps are located near fishing settlements where you have innocent populations being accommodated," said Peterside. "And so the onslaught in this area, because it aerial, ground and from the sea, so these innocent populations are being trapped while most of them have had their building also destroyed. Most people are trapped inside the mangroves. And so at the moment, the situation there is very, very, very terrible."
Nigeria's main militant group has accused the military of genocide in the Niger Delta. The military has dismissed the allegation as unfounded. The army says it would continue the offensive to flush militants out of the creeks after the hijacking of two vessels and attacks on troops in the area last week.
Successive Nigerian leaders have pledged to pacify the Niger Delta, where resentment against the oil industry runs deep among impoverished villagers but where criminal gangs also grow rich from a trade in stolen crude and kidnappings for ransom.
MEND says it is fighting for a fair distribution of oil wealth to local communities in the impoverished delta. The government, by contrast, says groups such as MEND are criminal organizations, motivated by profits.
The Nigerian army says it freed 17 hostages, nine Filipinos, four Ukrainians and four Nigerians, last weekend when it attacked the militants camp.
Attacks by militants in the Niger Delta have shut down around a fifth of Nigerian output since early 2006.