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Bayelsa community seeks justice after military ‘invasion’

Amidst fervent denials by the military, the people of Lutegbene community in Ekeremor Local Government Area of Bayelsa State are holding on to allegations of…

Amidst fervent denials by the military, the people of Lutegbene community in Ekeremor Local Government Area of Bayelsa State are holding on to allegations of an invasion by men believed to have come from the Operation Delta Safe security outfit after the killing of four soldiers by suspected  pirates.

The four soldiers were killed by yet unidentified gunmen after earlier warnings from the military over attacks on its personnel.

According to residents, some soldiers who were hunting for the killers of their four colleagues stormed the community, manhandled residents and burned houses.

Several residents have fled Azabegne, Bilabiri and Lutegbene among others as a result of the incident.

The chairman of Lutegbene Community Union, Mr. Odiayor Ekiyekon, told newsmen after the attack that the soldiers burned down the community because it was the closest to the scene of the incident, and wondered why the  military prefers to punish people for offences they know nothing about.

According to him, instead of the military to look for the criminals in the waterways, they destroyed the property of innocent citizens.

He said: “Our community has been invaded and burnt down by the military Joint Task Force (JTF) from Yenagoa over what we know nothing about. About 15 houses have been burnt and everyone is scampering for safety. The killing of the four military men and two civilians on 16th February, 2020 was not carried out by our community.

“They were killed by pirates who are not members of our community, our community was burnt because it was the closest commmunity to the incident. As we speak,  many children and adults are still missing. An old woman of 80-years was brutalized. A young man  was also brutalized and stabbled before being wishked away. Whether he is still alive we don’t know. All escape routes have been blocked by the invading soldiers.

“The survivors are starving, many innocent people were wounded by stray bullets, we need urgent attention here. We are suffering from what we know nothing about, our rivers have been taken over by pirates. It is not news, we have been crying out but relevant authorities and the military refused to do anything to chase them out, we suffer more pains in the hands of pirates than the military.

“Pirates rape our wives frequently, they steal property, money, boats  and engines from us. Travelers are at risk in this area, we are just being made to suffer double punishment. We need hellp, they should come and help secure our lives and property and not burn our community.”

But officials of the Joint Task Force (JTF) protecting oil installations in the Niger Delta region code-named ‘Operation Delta Safe’ (OPDS), denied invading the community, saying the task force would continue with it’s mandate to protect oil and gas installations, deter militancy, sea robbery, crude oil theft and other forms of criminality within the area.

The spokesman of the secutity outfit, Major Victor Olukoya, said troops from the command while carrying out their routine operations on February 16 at about 6pm were ambused by gunmen and four soldiers were killed. He said investigation was in progress to ascertain those behind the attack.

“It is important to state here that contrary to an online report, men of OPDS did not invade any community in Ekeremor LGA of Bayelsa State as a result of the incident.

“Please be informed that the Nigerian millitary is an organised and disciplined force and all its operations are guided by codes of conduct and rules of engagement.Thus, it cannot be seen to behave in the manner that was described by the  report.

“The Commander Operation Delta Safe alongside the Commander, 16 Brigade and Commander, Sector 2 on operational visit were in Letugene, Beneside, Ogbotobo and Tunu among other communities in the area, and observed citizens going about their lawful duties without hindrance.

“The commander therefore urges the good people of Ekeremor LGA to please remain law abiding, as the command will fish out the perpetrators of the ungodly act and ensure a secure environment for all,” he said.

The traditional spokesman of Lutegbene,  Chief Been Dodoru, however explained: “We were at home on February 16, some military personnel with one gun boat and two speed boats came to our community, we began to run, they called us back and said they didn’t come to attack us but to complain to us about the activities of pirates in the area.

“While complaining, they warned that our community would be held responsible for any further attack on their personnel and boats in the area. We equally told them our plight in the hands of the criminals. While they were giving the warning, another military gun boat escorting a barge to Port Harcourt passed our community.  Immediately after the military handed down the warning they left.

“But saddly, not less than 30 minutes after they left,  some gunmen attacked the barge and military escort heading to Port Harcourt and eventually killed four soldiers and two civilians.

“We are seriously worried about the incident. While we were trying to talk to the press on our innocence, the military came on February 17 with seven gunboats and burned about 15 houses in our community. Other houses were ransacked and properties were destroyed. We don’t know anything about the attack, we don’t harbour militants in our community, we are innoncent. Our community is not a criminal hideout, we want the intervention of the government of Bayelsa State and other Ijaw leaders to call the military to order. The soldiers involved should be investigated and  punished.  Burning commmunities because of some crimimal activities is uncalled for. We want relief materials and our community rebuilt. We want this to be done in 14 days time. Failure to do that, we will drag the military and the federal government to the International Criminal Court.”

The Paramount Ruler of Lutegbene Community, Chief Roman Derabebe, said what happened was injustice,  as the community was not involved in any crisis, adding that in the history of Letugbene community, it had never exchanged bullets with security personel.

He said: “There was a day in 2009 when these bad boys drove to my community and began shooting, people started runing here and there, even my chief then, Morrin Kurobo, was killed in the incident, my own son was injured and a military officer was killed at the spot  the hoodlums collected some speed-boats, despite that, we never made any comment. After that, they have been collecting speed-boats on serveral occasions.  In 2018, I was travelling with my chariman, some other chiefs and passengers  from Warri to my community, and those boys attacked us  from different directions and drove us down to the creeks, collected everything  from us  including money, bags, phones and other valuables, they almost killed us if not that God protected us.

“Again in 2019, a police officer was going for a burial at Egbama-Anglabiri and those bad boys raided all the boats. For years now, we have been pleading with the federal and the state governments to station some military gunboats on that River so that the route will be safer for people.”

The Ijaw Peoples Development Initiative (IPDI) has condemned the attack, saying it was disappointed in what it called the military’s “lawless invasion and burning” of the community.

The group said the military men burned 15 houses, rendering scores of children and women homeless while others are still missing.

It accused the military of repeatedly invading and burning communities in Ijaw land over the slightest threat by hoodlums who also attack residents at will.

In a statement signed by the National President of IPDI, Comrade Austin Ozobo, the group described the Nigerian Army as being sectional.

He said: “We are disappointed at the military’s lawlessness. Despite the Boko Haram menace in the North-East, no community has been burned down, the military is sectional, we are disappointed.”

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