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Army 'show of force' destroys a town

ON THE ROAD into what was the Nigerian farming and fishing town of Odi, the sickly sweet stench of rotting bodies rises from the jungle and briefly fills the humid air. Empty shoes litter the street.

Further on are the first ruined houses. Wood and mud homes with dirt floors are demolished, the roofs burnt and caved in. Four corpses lie among the ruins. At the other end of town stand the burned hulks of larger, more prosperous homes with carefully trimmed front lawns. Their owners are nowhere to be seen.

Violence is common in Nigeria's oil-rich south. In Odi it started when an ethnic Ijaw criminal gang allegedly killed 12 police, seven of whom they had taken hostage. The gang then took refuge in the hapless village of fishermen and banana, cassava and yam farmers.

The Nigerian army arrived and ordered the townspeople to hand over the gang, something they were powerless to do. So troops moved in and levelled Odi.

Captain John Agim, a spokesman for the army's 2nd Amphibious Brigade, based in nearby Port Harcourt, was unapologetic. "The intention was just a show of force to let them know they cannot continue like that," he said. "I think that has been achieved. No village will want to go through what that village went through."

Anthony Ogbise, 80, a retired teacher, was one of the few townspeople who did not flee into the bush as the soldiers approached. He seemed baffled by the destruction. Asked what happened, he said: "According to the federal government, there was some youths of this place who were misbehaving... and had to be brought to book."

Are Ekate, a widow who didn't know her age, stood before her gutted home with her only possessions: a dress and an enamel pot stacked with unbroken dishes. "They come broke all this house. They spread cassava flour on everything and burn it all," she said, showing the skeleton of a burned sewing machine. With their job done, the military were pulling out late last week.

Of the hundreds of homes along the main road in Odi, few were standing. One was burning, having been set alight more than a week after the army took the town.

It was impossible to guess how many people were killed - according to the army, three of its men and about a dozen civilians died in fighting to take the town. Of the thousands of people who fled into the jungle there was no sign. "The biggest concern is these people," said a relief worker who toured Odi. "Where are they? How are they?"

Nor is this town alone . During a two-week army occupation of Choba, four young men were killed, one injured so badly that he lost his hand and 67 women were raped, said Godwin Agbaraosimi, a local lawyer. Homes were looted and goats and chickens stolen and slaughtered.

While ethnic violence has become a growing problem in Nigeria since President Olusegun Obasanjo returned the nation to civilian rule this year, it is exacerbated in the Delta region by conflicts between local people and the international oil companies which operate there.

While the military viewed Odi's destruction as a crime prevention measure, it may simply provoke retaliation from the thousands of unemployed young men in the volatile region rather than cowing them. Oronto Douglas, an Ijaw leader in Port Harcourt, said what happened in Odi was "unprecedented" in scope, calling it the "first organised, advertised attack on an Ijaw community". Asked how the young men of his community were viewing the attack, he said: "I think they may not be taken quietly. I think they want to act."

Capt Agim was unworried, however, remarking dismissively: "Some people say 'The government sent the military to some poor defenceless village. That must be a very bad government.' "

Whatever the people said among themselves, it was clear that the military did not fear their reaction.