By Norm Dixon
At least 43 people in Nigeria's oil-rich Niger delta region have been killed in the opening hours of an invasion by federal troops. The people of the delta have long demanded an end to the environmental and social vandalism caused by oil companies operating there under the protection of the military.
More than 2000 federal troops entered Bayelsa state on November 19 to quell an upsurge in militant protest by youth of the Ijaw ethnic group. The main east-west road in the delta has been blockaded since November 20.
Journalists have been prevented from entering the town of Odi, in the centre of the delta, from which hundreds of people have fled. Odi is believed to be the base of militant Ijaw youth opposed to the presence of Western oil companies. Twelve police were killed in recent clashes with the youth.
Refugees from Odi reported hearing continuous gunfire in and around the town. Mortars were fired into the town, it was reported. Others told of troops burning down villages. On November 23, troops told the BBC that they had "killed many youths" and that Odi had been completely destroyed.
"Truckloads of civilians have been moved to the military cantonment at Elele. Perhaps they're displaced people or under arrest, it's not clear", a witness told Reuters on November 23.
"Odi community has been razed to the ground and dozens of people, including women and children have been killed", Felix Tuodolo, president of the Ijaw Youths Council in Port Harcourt, said.
The military crackdown follows an ultimatum by Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo to the governor of Bayelsa state that "law and order" be restored by November 24 or a state of emergency would be imposed.
There are also reports from Delta state that the paramilitary Mobile Police is indiscriminately attacking communities in Isoko North and South local government areas, where there has been inter-community conflict.
Obasanjo met with oil company executives on November 22 to reassure them that the government is "very much aware of the concerns of the oil-producing companies for law and order". Presidential spokesperson Doyin Okupe said the deployment of troops did not signal the beginning of a state of emergency.
In the oil town of Warri, another militant Ijaw group condemned the deployment of troops in Odi and threatened to target oil firms and "join forces with our brethren in Bayelsa state".
"We will not allow the federal government of Nigeria to massacre us with military weaponry acquired with our God-given resources", the Federated Niger Delta Ijaw Communities group said in a statement.