WARRI, Nigeria (AP) — Nigerian security forces clashed with oil militants and Biafran secessionists in separate bloody confrontations Monday that killed at least 20 civilians and two police officers, officials and witnesses said. The violence erupted in Nigeria's restive south as the military mounted an offensive in the oil rich south-central Niger Delta and separatists protested in the southeast.
Over the weekend, soldiers fired on speedboats believed to be carrying Niger Delta militants preparing to strike oil installations and killed or wounded an unknown number, army spokesman Col. Sani Kukasheka Usman said.
The Ijaw Youth Council, a community group, accused soldiers of firing Saturday night on a speedboat trying to evacuate civilians wounded in a military siege of Oporoza, a town reachable only by water or air.
Community leaders say civilians have been wounded and beaten up by soldiers demanding that residents hand over members of the Niger Delta Avengers, a new group that has claimed attacks on strategic pipelines that have halved oil production in a country that used to be Africa's biggest petroleum producer.
The offensive comes as the Avengers have mounted an increasingly fierce campaign targeting oil installations. In recent days, facilities belonging to the Dutch-British Shell company, Italy's Agip, and the U.S. oil giant Chevron have been targeted.
The Avengers have given the oil companies a May 31 deadline to leave Nigeria's southern, oil-producing Niger Delta.
"Watch out something big is about to happen and it will shock the whole world," the Avengers warned Saturday, addressing international and indigenous oil companies and Nigeria's military.
Army chief Maj. Gen. Tukur Buratai said the army will not tolerate the militants "killing our soldiers," but did not provide any details about military casualties. Local residents have reported the deaths of at least 10 army and navy personnel and about 30 police officers in the Niger Delta this year.
Community chieftain Elekute Macaulay said reinforcements arrived early Monday at Oporoza to widen the military siege. He said half of the 40,000 inhabitants have fled to the bush and creeks, and others are afraid to leave their homes.
In separate developments, security forces battled secessionists rallying to commemorate heroes of the 1967-1970 civil war to create a separate state of Biafra in southeast Nigeria. About 1 million people died in that war.
On Monday, five civilians and two police officers were killed during protests by secessionists in the southeastern city of Asaba, according to police Superintendent Charles Muka.
The secessionists said another 15 civilians were killed further south in Onitsha, but police said nobody was killed because security forces never used live ammunition to disperse the crowd.
About 600 people have been arrested, the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra said. Police said the protests were illegal because organizers did not have permits.
The Niger Delta Avengers have said they may ally themselves with the Biafran secessionists and make similar demands for a breakaway state from Nigeria.
Soldiers in the Niger Delta are demanding that villagers turn over fighters of the Avengers, and its alleged leader Government "Tompolo" Ekpemupolo, Macaulay said. Tompolo has denied involvement with the Avengers but the attacks began shortly after an arrest warrant was issued for him that claimed the theft of money from government contracts to guard oil installations.
Oil militants are angry that the government is winding down a 2009 amnesty program that paid 30,000 militants to guard the installations they once attacked. They are demanding a bigger share of Nigeria's oil wealth for residents of the Niger Delta, where oil pollution has destroyed the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of farmers and fishermen.