By Emma Amaize & Emma Arubi
WARRI â€” SOLDIERSÂ attached to the Joint Task Force (JTF) on the Niger-Delta may have uncovered two graves where the corpses ofÂ 12 of the 18 service personnel, who were declared missing in action (MIA) by the security outfit were buried near the Iroko Camp and Okerenkoko community in Delta State.
Meanwhile, at 10:00pm on Tuesday, the Movement for Emancipation of the Niger-Delta (MEND) attacked the Otunana flow station, operated by Chevron Nigeria Limited in Delta State as part of its operation â€œHurricane Piper Alphaâ€ which it launched following the expiration of its 72-hour ultimatum to oil companies to quit the region.
Vanguard gathered that the discovery was facilitated by the arrest of nine senior aides of the wanted militant leader, Government Ekpomukpolo alias Tompolo including a physically challenged youth alleged to be in charge of Tompolosâ€™ armoury.
A source said â€œIt was when they were brought to our headquarters that they pleaded not to be tortured and volunteered to provide information that will lead to the whereabouts of our missing officers and soldiersâ€.
Investigations revealed that the top hierarchy of the JTF was however trying to establish whether the bodies recovered were truly the remains of the missing officers and soldiers or the bodies of dead militants.
A security source however disclosed that forensic would have to be conducted to determine the identities of the recovered bodies.
The JTF Commander, Major-General Sarkin Yarkin-Bello who spoke to Vanguard at about 7.40 pm, yesterday said, â€œthere is no confirmation that the corpses of the soldiers have been found. What happened is that our search team saw a place where they suspected is a grave, but there is no confirmation that it is even a grave and whether anybody was buried thereâ€.
An independent source who spoke to Vanguard said that a search party saw a grave where nine soldiers were allegedly buried behind Iroko camp about two weeks ago but the authorities kept the information away from the bereaved families.
He said that two skulls of the dead soldiers were found in a gunboat, which was completely destroyed by the militants and parked at the Nigeria Ports Authority (NPA) waterside.
â€œThe second grave was found near Okerenkoko but it has not been dug open. What I can tell you is that the graves where the soldiers, 12 in all, were buried have been found but the Commander has not given instructions for the bodies to be exhumed.
â€œWe all know the soldiers are dead, there is no need keeping their families in darkness, their wives and children are suffering, they should exhume the bodies, which is the normal thing and do the necessary test so that the due allowances should be paid to their familiesâ€, the source said.
The source stated that the soldiers that were killed on May 13 were not out to attack militants, but went into that area of the creek on the orders of a senior officer.
According to him, â€œI believe the militants were given prior information about the visit of the anti-bunkering team and they were waiting for them. Like I told you before, they were not supposed to have entered that creek because they were not with the calibre of arms that would be used to confront the militants there. But because they had to obey orders, the soldiers went in and were killed.
â€œThere was no way they would have escaped that day because the militants overwhelmed them but the Lieutenant who was waiting for the tanker near Camp 5 was construed by the militants as part of the attack team by the military and right there, he was killed while the tanker he was waiting with others to escort was taken over, not that it was hijacked, because it had come to the vicinity of Camp 5 when the incident occurredâ€, he said.
MEND bombs Chevronâ€™s flow station
A community source told Vanguard at about 5.00am, yesterday, â€œOur communities are on fire, they have blown up Chevron facility in our area.â€
According to him, â€œthe communities are Teidegbene, Igousuwogbene and Ugehgbene. The heat from the fire is heavily affecting us and some people are packing their bag and baggage as I am speaking to you nowâ€.
MENDâ€™s spokesman, Jomo Gbomo in an online statement said, â€œAs forewarned, a major â€œCordon and Searchâ€ operation by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) commenced today, Tuesday, June 9, 2009 at about 2200 hours with devastating effects on the heavily fortified Chevron Otunana flow station in Delta state, which is currently engulfed in fire after being overwhelmed by our fighters.
â€œCode named â€˜Hurricane Piper Alphaâ€™, the objective is to smoke out war criminals of the Northern Nigerian armed forces, who have taken refuge in oil installations and give them instant jungle justiceâ€, he said.
â€œThese state-sponsored terrorists are responsible for the killings, rapes, indiscriminate bombings and wanton destruction of property belonging to innocent civilians in impoverished oil bearing communities whose resources continue to sustain the entire Nigerian economy to their own detriment.
â€œWe have adopted the same scorched earth policy of the military,Â which was approved by the Nigerian Presidency and endorsed by the National Assembly on any oil and gas company that allows its flow stations, rigs, pipelines or super tankers to be used as a safe havenâ€, the group asserted.
Chevron confirms incident
When contacted, Femi Odumabo, Chevronâ€™s General Manager in charge of Policy, Government and Public Affairs admitted that there was an incident and issued the following statement:
â€œChevron Nigeria Limited (CNL), operator of the NNPC/CNL joint venture confirms that there was a fire incident at the Utunana production facility in Delta State on Tuesday June 09. Our workforce is safe, relevant stakeholders have been informed and we are continuing to assess the situation and work to restore the integrity of the facility which had been shut down before the incident.â€
JTF denies attack on Chevron
However, the Joint Task Force (JTF) on the Niger-Delta also confirmed there was a fire outbreak at the Chevron Flow Station, Otunana in Warri South-West Local Government Area of Delta State, but said it was due to a system failure in one of the platforms and not attack by militants, as claimed by the Movement for Emancipation of the Niger-Delta (MEND).
Media coordinator of the military outfit, Colonel Rabe Abubakar in a statement said: â€œthere was a fire outbreak at Chevron Flow Station at Utunana, Warri South West Local Government Area of Delta State, at about 9pm yesterday (Tuesday).
The fire resulted from a system failure from one of the platforms which was out of bounds to all COSF. There was no casualty on own troops and the companyâ€™s workers.
â€œThe Joint Task Force (JTF), Operation Restore Hope, wishes to draw the attention of the general public to the fact that as against claims by some groups that the fire was caused by an act of sabotage by militants and their affiliated group â€” MEND, it was rather caused by system failure of a platform in the flow station,â€ he said.
â€œIf any militant group and their collaborators want a show of force, we are ready, if they want to test their strength; they are welcome as we do not engage in media war and cheap popularity.
Therefore, this claim and all other claims by any militant group should be disregarded in its entirety. Such groups are, however, advised to stop creating tension out of no tension and embrace the olive branch extended to them by government for their own good and for the good of the region and the nation,â€ he said.
Colonel Abubakar asserted, â€œWe want to assure the general public and oil companies operating in this region that the JTF is equal to the task of protecting them, no matter where the distractions and intimidations are coming fromâ€.