WARRI, Nigeria – Nigerian soldiers who launched a raid on militants hiding in the nation's oil-rich southern delta killed civilians and purposely destroyed homes, a human rights lawyer who visited the attacked region said Sunday.
Preye Onduku told The Associated Press he saw the site of one grave containing six civilians allegedly killed by the military during a brief visit Saturday to the village of Ayakoromor. While soldiers blocked journalists from the AP from seeing the Niger Delta village, they allowed Onduku to visit as his father owns a home there.
The fresh grave sits near the ruins of a local court in Ayakoromor, with many other homes destroyed by what appears to be fire and heavy weapons fire, the lawyer said. Onduku said local people told him that soldiers made them bury other bodies in graves around the village and others are feared dead.
The Nigerian military has denied civilians died during the attack to capture a wanted militant leader called John Togo. The general in charge of the military's operations in the delta has said soldiers only opened fire when someone fired upon them as they neared Ayakoromor's shoreline at the start of the raid Wednesday.
However, human rights activists say as many as 150 people died as the military used heavy machine gun fire and aerial bombing on the village. Onduku said he saw five people suffering from gunshot wounds during his brief visit.
The military raid came after an unknown number of soldiers died days ago in an effort to apprehend Togo.
"They were angry that (the militants) had gone and killed their officers and they went to bomb the community. That is the simple reason," the lawyer said. "I don't know whether it is anger or how to put it, but it is cowardice."
The military has yet to capture Togo. The militant's lawyer has said his client is "on the high seas" far away from Ayakoromor.
Mamadou Sow, a leader in the Niger Delta with the International Committee of the Red Cross, said the attack displaced more than 200 people, who are now living inside a local schoolhouse.
"When the fighting started, they rushed into the forest," Sow said. "When they got back, their homes were destroyed."
Sow said the Red Cross is providing food and medical treatment to villagers, as is the Nigerian military.
Militant and military attacks are nothing new to the Niger Delta, a region of creeks and mangroves about the size of South Carolina. The attacks from an insurgency that began in 2006 cut drastically into crude production in Nigeria, an OPEC-member nation that is one of the top suppliers of crude oil to the U.S.
Production has risen back to 2.2 million barrels of oil a day, in part because many militant leaders and fighters accepted a government-sponsored amnesty deal last year.
But as militants over the years profit from kidnapping and oil theft, the military has launched several reprisal massacres against villages. Often, civilians find themselves caught in the middle of a war over oil they never profit from.