By Upstream staff
Militants in the Niger Delta oil patch threatened today to avenge the killing of at least 10 of their fighters and restated their aim to halt all the country’s crude exports.
The militants were killed during an attempt to free a hostage on Sunday night when their boat ran into a heavily armed military convoy on Brass Creek in the southern state of Bayelsa.
The hostage, a Nigerian Shell employee, was also killed in the fighting.
“Our response to Sunday’s killings will come at our time, but for certain it will not go unpunished,” the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend) said in an email to Reuters.
“It was an unprovoked attack on people on a peaceful mission to free a hostage,” the group added.
The Defence Ministry has expressed “deep regret” over Sunday’s incident and launched an investigation.
State government officials frequently seek the help of militants to secure the release of hostages, and usually tip off security forces of any such operation to ensure they are not attacked.
Mend said it wanted to put an end to a string of kidnappings in the delta this month which saw 17 oil workers abducted in seven separate incidents. All but one have now been released.
“The reason we decided to put a stop to this is the involvement of criminal elements who have no connection with our struggle,” Mend said.
Like many delta militant groups before it, Mend is pressing for more regional control over its oil wealth, compensation for oil spills and the release of detained leaders from the region.
But most of the kidnappings were done by armed “freelancers” seeking ransoms.
Mend’s attacks in February forced Shell to reduce output by 500,000 barrels per day, a quarter of the nation’s capacity.
But there has been a lull since June. Mend has been publicly threatening more violence, and today reiterated its aim to halt oil exports completely.
“The problems of the delta will only be addressed when we put a total halt to Nigerian oil exports,” mend said, giving no time frame.
Despite the rhetoric, some interpret the lull in attacks as a signal that Mend is giving the government a chance to respond.
President Olusegun Obasanjo set up a committee in April to develop jobs and infrastructure in the neglected region, but the initiative has so far failed to impress delta activists.
“There has been a lull in vandalisation of pipelines because we are saying let’s give the federal government a chance,” said Kimse Okoko, president of the Ijaw National Congress.
“It will be difficult to stop the struggle if the federal government refuses to take action.”
In an apparent U-turn, Obasanjo last week launched a military crackdown against what he called criminals engaged in kidnapping in the delta, and troops have been combing suspected militant hideouts around the delta city of Port Harcourt.
Activists fear that this, along with Sunday’s killings, could mark a resurgence of armed conflict between Mend and thousands of troops deployed to protect oil installations in the vast wetlands region.