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(New York, November 22, 1999) — Human Rights Watch called on the Nigerian government to withdraw the Nigerian soldiers deployed in the Niger Delta over the weekend.

Information from the sealed off area was still sketchy on Monday, but local informants reported to Human Rights Watch that large numbers of casualties were feared in indiscriminate reprisals against the civilian population. In January 1999, soldiers killed tens of people and seriously assaulted many others in the course of a similar military crackdown in the same area of Bayelsa State.

"This is the worst possible response to the unrest in the delta," said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. "The rule of law clearly needs to be restored, but government lawlessness of this kind can only make the situation worse."

Human Rights Watch called on the government to withdraw the soldiers immediately and use regular law enforcement measures to arrest those alleged to be responsible for the murder of the policemen. "The government must draw a clear distinction between those who have carried out criminal acts and those who are exercising their constitutional rights to express their views, not to mention those who are simply bystanders," said Takirambudde. "On repeated recent occasions security forces have failed to do so."

The rights group also called on oil companies operating in Nigeria publicly to express their concern to the government and to urge a negotiated solution to the problems of the delta. "The oil companies who provide the wealth to Nigeria's government undoubtedly have an important influence on government policy in the delta," Takirambudde said. "They should condemn indiscriminate killings and urge respect for human rights."

Since President Olusegun Obasanjo took office in May 1999, leaders from the oil producing communities have stepped up demands for more revenue sharing with the people living in the areas where oil is produced.

Despite many decades of oil production, bringing billions of dollars to the Nigerian state, the Niger Delta region remains impoverished, and suffers the adverse environmental effects of oil production. The new government has made general promises that it intends to redress these grievances, but has taken few concrete steps to do so.

"What is needed is talking not shooting," said Takirambudde. He warned that the latest troop movements were likely to inflame those militants in the delta who want to go to war.

The current military operation is focused on Odi, a community in Bayelsa State just off the main east-west road that runs from Port Harcourt to Warri, the two most important towns in the oil producing region. Two weeks ago, several policemen were killed in the town by militant youths from the Ijaw ethnic group. The youths, described by local activists as "lawless elements," had been mobilizing to travel to Lagos where Ijaws had been faring badly in violent clashes with members of the Yoruba Oodua People's Congress.

Following the deaths of the policemen, President Obasanjo threatened to declare a state of emergency in Bayelsa State if their killers were not arrested within two weeks. That ultimatum expires this Wednesday, but appears to have been preempted by the weekend's military action. There had been no official announcement about the crackdown by Monday morning.

Current reports from Delta State indicate that paramilitary Mobile Police are also engaging in indiscriminate attacks on communities in Isoko North and South local government areas, where there has been recent inter-community conflict.

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