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Nigerian Rebels to Widen Conflict, Target Agip

THE NEW YORK TIMES: Nigerian Rebels to Widen Conflict, Target Agip

Companies fear a repeat of last year’s uprising by members of the Ijaw tribe, which forced them temporarily to shut 40 percent of the country’s 2.5 million barrel per day output.: “We have decided to declare Operation Locust Feast which will cover the whole Niger delta. It is going to be an all-out war against the Nigerian state.”

By REUTERS

Published: September 26, 2004

LAGOS (Reuters) – Nigerian rebels battling troops in Africa’s top oil exporter declared on Sunday they would extend their uprising across the whole of the country’s oil-producing southern delta.

A rebel leader told Reuters the conflict, currently focused in the eastern part of the delta, was to force political reforms or gain sovereignty for the impoverished region, adding that his militia would attack Italian oil installations and personnel.

Mujahid Dokubo-Asari accused the Italian oil company Agip, a unit of ENI, of lending helicopters to the military to spy on rebel positions. The company denied it.

Companies fear a repeat of last year’s uprising by members of the Ijaw tribe, which forced them temporarily to shut 40 percent of the country’s 2.5 million barrel per day output.

Oil production has not yet been affected by the latest surge in violence, but multinational Royal Dutch/Shell evacuated 235 staff from two oilfields on Thursday.

“We have decided to declare Operation Locust Feast which will cover the whole Niger delta. It is going to be an all-out war against the Nigerian state. Now the whole Ijaw nation will be fighting against the Nigerian state,” Asari told Reuters by satellite phone.

About half of Nigerian oil production comes from the eastern side of the delta, a vast area of creeks and mangrove swamps, while the other half comes from the west, also inhabited predominantly by Ijaws and scene of last year’s rebellion.

The government launched a major military offensive two weeks ago against Asari’s Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF), and used helicopter gunships to bomb one of his camps last week. Asari accused the military of using chemical weapons against his men, causing burns and blisters on their skin. This was denied by the army.

Port Harcourt residents said suspected NDPVF rebels attacked soldiers at a waterfront location in the city on Sunday, but casualties were not immediately available.

TRUCE BROKEN

Asari accused the government of breaking a cease-fire agreed on Sept. 3, and said the NDPVF, which he estimated had 168,000 members, will fight until the government agrees to call a Sovereign National Conference, where the country’s ethnic groups can renegotiate the terms of the Nigerian federation.

“We were forced into Nigeria by the British colonialists. We are not Nigerians — there is no such nation as Nigeria,” Asari said. “Until there is a Sovereign National Conference to decide these issues, we have no choice but to fight until sovereignty is in our hands.”

Asari says he is fighting to improve the lot of the Niger delta people, most of whom live in abject poverty despite having all the nation’s oil reserves. The government calls him a gangster fighting for control of smuggling routes used by oil thieves.

A NDPVF commander told Reuters on Thursday that the group would target oil wells and pipelines in the delta if the military continued its attacks. The threat underlined market fears of supply disruptions, and London oil futures closed 20 cents higher on Friday at $45.32 per barrel.

Asari said he had already decided to target Italian oil company Agip, although a meeting of commanders would soon decide if others such as Shell, Total, ChevronTexaco and Exxon should become targets.

“Agip loaned the Nigerian state a helicopter to spy on our positions. After that they came with fighter jets and helicopters to bomb us,” Asari said.

“Since Agip has joined the Nigerian state we will attack them if we see them. We will attack their installations and personnel because they have joined the war on the side of the Nigerian state.”

An Agip spokeswoman in Italy said the company’s helicopters were used exclusively for the company’s operations.

“We have no reason to believe that Eni’s infrastructure or personnel are in a dangerous situation. Production is continuing as normal,” she said.

The Nigerian Agip Oil Company, a joint venture in which ENI has 60 percent equity, operates four oil production areas in the delta. In 2002, the fields where ENI is operator generated around 10 percent of Nigeria’s total oil production.

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