May 12, 2011 / 5:28 PM / in 8 years

Nigerian army hunts renegade militants in oil delta

* Military say on offensive to flush out gangs

* No immediate risk to oil industry

* Togo considered among most dangerous gang leaders

By Austin Ekeinde

PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria, May 12 (Reuters) - Nigerian soldiers raided suspected militant camps in the creeks of the Niger Delta on Thursday, the second day of clashes in the heartland of Africa’s biggest oil and gas industry.

The military said it had uncovered new camps in Delta state set up by John Togo, a wanted gang leader who escaped a joint air, land and sea offensive by the security forces last year.

“It is from these new camps that recent cases of sea robbery and harassment of traders in the creeks have been staged,” said Timothy Antigha, spokesman for the joint military taskforce (JTF) responsible for policing the Niger Delta.

“The JTF is currently engaged in a military operation to rout these criminals once and for all,” he said.

Armed gangs in the Niger Delta shut as much as a quarter of Nigeria’s oil output during years of attacks on industry infrastructure until an amnesty brokered by President Goodluck Jonathan in 2009 brought relative peace.

The militants claimed they were fighting for a fairer share of the oil wealth for local communities, although many were involved in a lucrative trade in stolen oil and in kidnapping oil workers and wealthy Nigerians for ransom.

The latest unrest appears linked to local politics rather than any renewed campaign of violence against the oil industry and there was no immediate threat to any industry facilities.

Most of the known field commanders of the main militant group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), accepted the amnesty programme and Togo is considered a renegade gang leader.

LOCAL POLITICS

Togo is renowned as one of the more dangerous criminal leaders in the region, responsible for violent armed robberies and ambushes, according to security sources.

Last December’s raids on his camps led to gun battles in which several civilians were killed and dozens displaced.

Antigha said the new camps were located further away from villages and local communities but urged civilians to stay away.

“Every care has been taken to avoid collateral damage,” he said, adding it was too soon to say whether there were casualties.

The military went on the offensive after a statement issued by a group calling itself the “Coalition of Niger Delta Freedom Fighters” last week warned of attacks following the victory of Delta state governor Emmanuel Uduaghan in elections last month.

The Delta state vote, part of a cycle of presidential, parliamentary and state elections across Africa’s most populous nation, was marred by reports of ballot box snatching, voter intimidation and fraud.

The army warned on Sunday that nobody had the right to take up arms in the name of an election dispute and that it would deal decisively with any group which tried to do so.

Many security consultants say the outlook for the safety of the oil industry in the Niger Delta is as good as it has been for years following the victory of Jonathan, the first head of state from the Niger Delta, in last month’s presidential race.

Former MEND commanders have shared intelligence with the military to help flush out remaining gangs and the amnesty programme is continuing apace, although finding jobs for the disarmed fighters is a major long term challenge. (For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: af.reuters.com/ ) (Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

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