By Emma Amaize, Regional Editor, South-South
IF there was any ambiguity that the Joint Task Force, JTF, on the Niger-Delta was not battle-ready to wipe out renegade militants in the Niger-Delta, who returned to the creeks following their alleged dissatisfaction with the post-amnesty programme , it was cleared on Wednesday, December 1, when they invaded Ayokoromor community in Burutu Local Government Area of Delta in search of the leader of the Niger-Delta Liberation Force, NDLF, “General” John Togo and his fighters.
“General” Togo, had announced last month the establishment of a new militant group, NDLF, few days after the Ministry of Defense directed the JTF to clean out militant camps in the region following the resurgence of militancy in Bayelsa, Akwa Ibom and Rivers states.
The JTF had before Togo surfaced, overrun not fewer than 14 militant camps in the region. Among the camps seized by the special security forces were those operated by one ‘Commander Obez’ in Rivers State, three in Bayelsa operated by one Keiti Sese, also known as Commander Nomukeme (Mad man) in Foropa, Southern Ijaw and another one at Igbikiri in Nembe area.
Also occupied in Bayelsa by the security forces following voluntary handover witnessed by the Commander of the Sector 2, Col. Victor Ezugwu, were camps formerly operated by Ebikabowei Victor-Ben, otherwise known as Field Marshal (Boyloaf) and ‘Commander Pastor Wilson Reuben’ in Ezetu, Ekene and Polama communities of Southern Ijaw council area.
A total of 30,000 rounds of ammunition, dynamites, anti-aircraft rocket launchers, five machine guns and AK 47 were recovered in three separate operations launched in the three states.The occupation of the camps by the security forces, it was learnt, was to prevent hoodlums from using the abandoned camps as base to carry out their nefarious activities.
In the Rivers and Bayelsa operations, the commander of the Joint Task Force, Major-General Charles Omoregie, said there were no confrontation between the soldiers and the militants, stressing that when the militants saw that the attack was imminent, they extended an “olive branch” to JTF.
He described the current campaign as a multi-dimensional operation that would involve the continued patrol of the creeks to dissuade the return of the criminals identified among the militants.
But despite success of the task force in reigning in renegade militants in other parts of the region, “General” Togo, who was declared wanted, during the week, by the task force remained a hard nut. On November 17 when men of the task force went to capture his camp, his group reportedly ambushed them and slain no fewer than nine soldiers. Up till date, the task force had not admitted that it lost any soldier in that ill-fated encounter that saw many soldiers wounded and gunboats destroyed.
Sensing that the JTF would come for a reprisal, “General” Togo personally set his camp ablaze with explosives the following day, November 18, and relocated to another hideaway in the creeks, which he called Israel Barracks, off the Atlantic Ocean and from there, he dared the task force to come for him, saying he was on his own when they came to kill him.
The JTF, apparently took its time and on December 1, about two weeks after its fatal clash with NDLF, stormed his hometown, Ayokoromor, and bombarded it from both air and sea.
According to the spokesman of the task force, Lt. Col Timothy Antigha, the JTF overran Togo’s camp in Ayokoromor and another one in Okirika in the December 1 operation.
But what is surprising to the people of Ayokoromor is why the task force should descend on innocent villagers when it was clear to them that John Togo does not reside in the community and that the people were no harboring him.
According to the NDLF spokesman, “Captain” Mark Anthony, up to 100 persons were killed in the December 1 operation by the task force. Lt. Col Antigha , however, debunked the claim, saying, the operation was directed at militants and their camps, and not villagers.
Vice president of the Ayokoromor Federated Communities, Elder Bernard Brialade, Ayokoromor urban chairman, Chief Albert Doutimiyebo and other leaders, who addressed newsmen in Warri on the recent development in the community accused the JTF of killing their people and appealed to President Goodluck Jonathan to restrain the task force.
The JTF appears unperturbed as it continued with its operation on December 2. Some villagers told Saturday Vanguard that more persons were killed. Among them were a community leader, Jacob Mokor, 55-year-old Onitsha Kitua, a secondary school teacher, Bonny Mekuruno, a teenager identified as Benji, Nonaverhue Kalana, who escaped from his house when it was set ablaze and allegedly fired when he rushed out and Oyabrede. A music maestro whose name was given as Borere and Samuel Rubber were among the wounded.
A villager told Saturday Vanguard, yesterday, that “”All the houses in the waterfront were razed to the ground by soldiers and yesterday morning when the soldiers came again, some people who were still bleeding from the injuries sustained from Wednesday’s attack were killed”. But media coordinator of the task force, Lt. Col Timothy Antigha declined to own up to any killing and arson by the task force when contacted, saying the JTF took over two militant camps, belonging to John Togo earlier on Wednesday and continued with its operation, yesterday.
He said the task force had earlier warned those residing near militant camps to vacate the areas, adding that people in camouflage army uniforms who were shooting at military aircrafts and soldiers could not have been civilians as claimed.
Other neighbouring communities to Ayakoromor, notably, Ogodobiri and Obotebe r neighboring villages to Ayokoromor, which which were horror-struck by the destruction carried out by the task force in Ayokoromor have also called on the task force not to attack the people. Elder Brialade and Chief Doutimiyebo said Ayokoromor people were shocked because the leaders of the community showed the task force the exact location of John Togo’s abandoned camp, which is about three kilometers from the town, yet , they bombarded innocent citizens under the guise of looking for Togo.
“If men of the JTF who are armed to tooth can’t capture John Togo, who are we to do that. As at present, many of our people are displaced and are in the mangrove forest wallowing without direction. That is why we are calling on the Federal Government to call the JTF to stop further attacks on the community because at present over 60 persons have lost their lives and about 40 houses razed down”, they said.
Reports from Ayakoromor said many people were still trapped in the forest and may die if they were not urgently rescued and given proper medical attention. Nevertheless, JTF spokesman said the task force did not attack any community as had been speculated, saying the soldiers only took over militant camps and were in search of John Togo, whose photographs were everywhere and would not be mistaken for villagers.
As at the time of filing this report, John Togo was still at large. His new base has not been located by the task force and the latest disclosure by the Chief of Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Oluseyi Petinrin that the Federal Government would not grant new amnesty to those he described as criminals, masquerading as militants, may affect on-going efforts by Togo to get a soft-landing.
Togo had actually indicated his intention to surrender and cease hostilities two days before the JTF renewed its search for him by storming his hometown.
He told Saturday Vanguard on phone barely one hour after his hometown was bombarded on Wednesday that the task force was carrying out genocide on innocent people, saying he had since moved out of his camp, near Ayokoromor, to the knowledge of the task force, but the soldiers chose to kill innocent souls.
His counsel, Casely Omon-Irabor Esq. however, told Sunday Vanguard that the stand of the Chief of Defense Staff would not affect the move by Togo to surrender and cease hostilities because it was not in the place of the CDS to refuse any militant that was willing to stop militancy in the region.
Omon-Irabor said the Federal Government wants peace in the Niger-Delta and every militant who was still carrying arms in the Niger-Delta should be encouraged to drop arms and no time was too late for it, as long as the aim is to rid the region of criminals.