By Jimitota Onoyume
As Commander Joint Task Force, Operation Restore Hope, JTF, General Charles Omoregie is saddled with the task of ridding the area of hoodlums, sea pirates, illegal bunkers and other criminal elements threatening the nation’s economy from the area . In this interview, he appeals to all to see security as a shared responsibility, particularly community leadership, to steer youths away from the evolving culture of violence and criminality in the region.
What are the biggest challenges confronting you as the new Commander of the Joint Task Force?
The challenges have been enormous, because we are not fighting a conventional war. The duty is maintaining internal peace which is different from conventional war where you have defined enemies and plan to neutralise them. But in this operation in the region, it is a security arrangement to curb the excesses of the criminals that masquerade as militants.
And the training for the conventional war is different from the one for internal security operations which is a specialised kind of training. We train and retrain to ensure there is no colossal damage during operations. We ensure civilians are not caught in cross fire and no casualties amongst the civilians. So, it is a specialised operation in the region with a view to having success without damages, without having to run foul of the law, having success without creating enemity in the community. Care is of paramount importance in this operation in the Niger Delta.
You said you train to avoid colossal damage during your operations in the region. But outcry over your recent operation in Ayakoromoh community in Delta State does not seem to support that. Some people even accused your men of having committed genocide. The community has gone ahead to release over fifty names of people they claimed died in the operation
I am the leader of the JTF. And within the JTF, we have sector one Delta state, sector two Bayelsa state and sector three Rivers state. This operation was carried out by sector one, Delta state. The operation was not targeted at Ayakoromor. We have no business with Ayakoromor. John Togo’s camp was few kilometres away from Ayakoromor; the plan was for one of our units to attack the camp frontal, crossing the canal to do this. Another unit was to pass through Ayakoromor and then form a blocking force to ensure that while the camp of Togo was being attacked the militants,he would not run into Ayakoromor community because it would be difficult to identify them if they did. That brought to fore, the issue of conducting operation with minimal casualty. So this was the plan to avoid colossal damage and civilian casualty.
So this blocking force was supposed to pass Ayakoromor and then form a blocking force to prevent the militants running from the camp into the community. But we were surprised that as they entered Ayakoromor , they came under what we call enemy effective fire, that is fire from the militants. The boys took position along the beach and opened fire on the troops who were at this moment midstream. We did not plan to attack Ayakoromor , it is a friendly community.
The only option opened to our men was to fire back. The militants took defensive position along the beach and opened fire on our men who were at this time midstream. Ayakoromor community has been a friendly community. They gave us information on Togo’s operations. The only thing opened to the Commander of the soldiers on ground was to open fire to secure a bridgehead for the troops to land because his men were in the midstream, they were opened to fire from the militants from all sides.
The Commander had to charge troop to secure bridgehead for his troop to land. In the process, some of the thatched houses caught fire and spread to other areas. You know it is a riverine community; they stored fuel for their operations. Those thatched houses and stores where they sell petrol along the coast caught fire and spread to other houses. When we visited the community after the operation they told us that about six or nine persons died. They took permission from the JTF to bury the corpses. The community did the burial.
I like to state that if we begin to get conflicting figures on the number of dead people, we can exhume the corpses and count, if we need to go that far for the world to know the truth.
Two days after the attack, I went there in the company of the Council Chairman, Ijaw Youth Council president, Red Cross. We went to the village, they told us that about six to nine persons died and that they also did the burial. So, where are they getting this fresh figure of about 50 persons from? We have a record of the visits. So ,if two days after the operation, you said nine and weeks after ,you said 50 then there is something.
Is it not likely that they started recovering bodies from the water days after the operation?
No corpse was recovered from the water. They could not have run into the water, all they would have done was to run into the forest.
Again is impossible that some of the corpses may have been recovered from the forests some days later?
No, no. Apart from the first burial they did, they never mentioned any other burial to us.
There was this allegation that you did a mass burial to conceal the identities and actual number of the death toll.
(cuts in)These are the things that are physical. We are very ready to be led to any grave purported to have been used by the JTF. They buried their corpses themselves. Even the nine people they claimed died they could not produce their names. In any case, if there were casualties, they might have been militants who were caught by bullets. I argue that you don’t bury an old man in communities without some rituals. He has a wife, children etc. Those they buried must have been militants because most of the militants ran into the village from Togo’s camp.
Internally displaced persons (IDPS) emerged from the operation.
(Cuts in again) IDPS could emerge in such a situation. Some were brought to Warri, we gave them food and other items. We have bought over 250 mattresses, pillows, bed sheets etc for them. We have also assisted them to rebuild the community radio house and replaced their speakers. The radio house is by the shore, it was among places that caught fire. We have bought building materials worth about five million naira.
We have also established a kind of medical centre with our staff attending to the sick, not mainly caused by the operations.
Is this in response to the presidential directive that the army should rebuild the community?
No, no. As I said, the incident in Ayakoromor was an unfortunate one. We are doing this out of sympathy, that a community was caught up in a cross fire as a result of the action of some militants that fired at soldiers from the community. As a rule, communities where civilians stay, churches, mosques, hospitals, schools are not military targets. You don’t enter them.
Places like shrines, cultural centres are not military targets. You don’t shoot at them but if fire is drawn from any of them, that place loses its immunity. So when fire was drawn from the community at the soldiers midstream, there was no other option but to respond to enable them beach land. We are doing this as a show of love for the people. We are handling the rebuilding as a direct labour thing. The army has a lot of engineers, doctors, architects, etc
The President has directed that the army rebuild the community. What are the likely things the army will do in the area?
We will replace roofs and houses that were burnt
On your side, how many casualties did you suffer during the Ayakoromor operation?
We had some during our first attempt to take over Togo’s camp. Our soldiers went there with a view to giving him, John Togo, an opportunity to voluntarily handover the camp but he opened fire on them. We had some casualties. But as a tradition in the army, we don’t release this figure.
Some have said they were close to about 20 soldiers that died because they saw corpses in military uniforms being deposited at a morgue in a nearby community. Any comment?
Some of these militants wear military uniforms. When we raided Obese’s camp in Port Harcourt for instance, we saw army uniforms there. So these are the false impressions these militants create when they deck in military uniforms. We don’t mention casualties on our side but the number was certainly far below what you heard.
Most people want to know the understanding between the JTF and some of the militants you arrested recently in Port Harcourt. In one breath, the JTF sounded like the militants voluntarily gave up themselves; in another, they made it look like it was an arrest. What really happened? Was there any kind of negotiation or deal?
In a boxing contest you can make your opponent give up; make him throw in the towel. Obese was caged and he started begging to surrender. And we gave him conditions. We told him to bring out all the hostages in his custody, come out with his weapons and boys. He obliged us. So I don’t see where negotiation comes in here. Did he negotiate with his clear eyes? Certainly not, because he saw the superior fire power of the JTF. And to avoid losing his life, he gave up himself. We did not negotiate with him. We handed him over to the police for prosecution.
Let me tell you, two days before he came out, he told me he ate raw indomie, he said there was no food and even water to cook. We caged him, no supply for him. When he saw that the die was cast, he gave up. May be, if he had not done this, he would have lost his life but today, he has his life. Some of those arrested have appeared in court
Ateke Tom handed over some of his camps recently to you. And he said he was willing to transfer his camp 8 to fisher men in his area. What is your reaction to this ?
The government decided to take these camps over from ex militants for two reasons. We did not want them to go back using them or for emerging militants to use them. If there is a camp he wishes to give to fisher men, fine but as I speak with you, Ateke Tom handed over eight camps to us, including the camp he code named 8 and we destroyed the three bedroom furnished accommodation erected on the place. As a rule, any camp we can’t occupy , we destroy. His camp 8, he also called it Marine camp. If he wanted to give it to fishermen, we would have obliged him as far as the camp is not used by any militant.
In Bayelsa state, one of the camps of Boaloaf, an ex militant leader, has been converted to a forward mobilisation base. We are destroying the ones they used for training with few training kiths.