By Molly Kilete

In a long time to come, Okuama, a riverine community in Ughelli South Local Government Area of Delta State might not know peace, following the gruesome killing of four officers and 13 soldiers of the Nigerian Army by militant youths in the community.

Saturday Sun gathered that the soldiers who, until their brutal killing on March, 14, 2024, were deployed to the 181 Amphibious Battalion in Bomadi Local Government Area of Delta State, were on a peacekeeping mission in the town to mediate between two warring communities – Okuama and Okoloba.

On the day of the scheduled meeting, four soldiers were said to have accompanied some civilians from one of the communities to the venue, which took place at the community town hall.  The meeting, community sources said, went on peacefully at the beginning but later became riotous as tempers began to rise. Soon, fight broke out with youths from both sides brandishing dangerous weapons for attack.

In the face of the violence that ensued, the four soldiers who accompanied the civilians to the community, remained calm where they were stationed outside the town hall.

In quick succession, it was gathered, violence began to escalate as the restive youths who thought the soldiers were brought in to intimidate them, began to advance to where they were stationed in readiness to launch a major attack on them.  On realising the danger that was looming, the soldiers opened fire to scare the youths who kept advancing towards them. But that did not yield any positive result even as the soldiers also tried to explain to the youths that they were there for peacekeeping and not for war. Yet, their pleas, as gathered, fell on deaf ears as the youths who were heavily armed eventually overpowered the soldiers and took them away.

“It was at this point that they put a call through to their base that they had been surrounded and taken hostage by the youths. It was also at that point that they called for reinforcement,” the community source told Saturday Sun

The civilians whom the soldiers accompanied were also said to have called the commander of the unit and had given him the situation report.

Saturday Sun gathered that on getting the report, the commander, Lieutenant Colonel A. H. Ali, immediately mobilised some of his officers and men to the community to calm the situation and rescue his men.  An Army officer told Saturday Sun that the commander was mindful of the fact that he was going for a peacekeeping mission, so he took along with him, just a few men and few weapons, unlike what usually happens when there is a combat operation.

On getting to the community, the deceased commander reportedly asked to see the traditional ruler and headed straight to his palace to find out the situation on ground and to get his men released.

The meeting was said to have taken place peacefully. It was on their way back to their base that the angry youths were waiting, unknown to the soldiers, and were set for a full scale gun battle with the officers and men.  Apparently unprepared for the scale of confrontation they witnessed, the soldiers were overpowered as a result of insufficient ammunition, killed in the most brutal manner and had their organs severed.

Prior to their killing, the soldiers were unable to put a call across to their headquarters or any military formation about the attack. It was after they failed to return to base that troops of the battalion began to express fear, as none of their numbers and radio communications gadgets went through.  By the next day, a Friday, a search party was dispatched to the community to find out the whereabouts of their officers and soldiers. It was after the search that the Defence Headquarters (DHQ) then made it public on Saturday, March 16. With the condemnation, anger and uncertainty that now trail the killing, questions have been raised as to why soldiers were deployed to mediate between two warning communities when the police were there.

In the past week, there have been insinuations in the social media that the killings of the soldiers might not be unconnected with their complicity in oil bunkering or providing security for certain individuals. But that was denied by a military source who described the deceased commander as a man of integrity who would not want to soil his good name. A senior military officer described him as “an officer with unquestionable integrity; a commander who was earlier deployed in the North-East in the ongoing counter insurgency war, and he performed so well that he was given accelerated promotion from the rank of a Major to a Lieutenant Colonel, two years ahead of his course mates.”

As deterrence, military authorities have vowed to get the killers of their personnel and recover all the weapons seized from the deceased soldiers.  Military operations have been intensified with combing of all the nooks and crannies of some communities in Delta and Bayelsa states to get the leader of the youth group that killed the soldiers.

Community leaders and former militant leaders who seem to be frustrated by the activities of the dreaded youth group are now helping the military to achieve result as they also share in the pains of the families and loved ones the soldiers left behind.

A top military officer, who spoke with Saturday Sun said “the military will not vacate the community until we recover all the weapons and ammunitions they took from our gallant heroes.”