People are fleeing Nigeria's main oil city of Port Harcourt amid heavy fighting between government troops and armed gangs, residents and officials told IRIN on Friday.
“The whole thing appears to be completely out of hand,” said Opuka Ibieye, a resident of Port Harcourt, a 2 million strong city in the south of the country, who said he was fleeing the city with his family.
“We have no choice but to leave this city as it is not safe any more.”
Fighting broke out in the early hours of 16 August after the military launched an attack in the Makoba district of the city on what was believed to be a hideout of top militia leader, Soboma George, known often simply as George.
“We were lucky we got information on the hideout of Soboma George and we went to attack it and cordon it off,” said Maj. Sagir Musa, spokesman of the joint military task force in charge of security in the volatile Niger Delta oil region.
“In the process there was an exchange of fire between the militants and the troops.”
Residents said the fighting then spread to other parts of the city, including Borokiri, Creek Road and Marine Base, with helicopter gunships flying overhead firing at what was supposed to be militia positions.
Armed militia fighters operating on motorbikes fought back with automatic weapons and dynamite.
People were also seen leaving the city with their belongings on 17 August amid widespread fears the militia fighters had regrouped in creeks around Port Harcourt and were planning to launch a fresh offensive on the city during the weekend.
The Rivers State government, the seat of which is in Port Harcourt, said in a statement late on 16 August that at least 32 people had died in the fighting, most of them militia fighters, including the leader George.
But the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), the main militant group in the region which claims George as one its commanders, denied the claim. “George is alive and well,” according to a statement emailed from MEND.
The latest fighting is blamed on a recent upsurge of violence after troops were sent in to intervene following clashes between rival armed gangs in the city, apparently fighting for control of lucrative criminal rackets in guns, drugs and illegal oil deals.
Dozens of people have been killed in the city in the past two weeks. Reuters reported on 16 August that 71 gunshot victims have been admitted to a Port Harcourt trauma centre in the two weeks before.
Nearly two decades of unrest in the Niger Delta region have in recent years evolved into an armed insurgency for local control of the oil wealth. The Niger Delta produces nearly all the oil that is the mainstay of Nigeria's economy yet the region remains one of the poorest in the country.
Criminal gangs have grown increasingly powerful, thriving on rackets involving tapping of oil from the region's network of pipelines. The tapped oil is illegally sold to ships waiting offshore, often in exchange for guns.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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