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Reuters: Nigeria launches helicopter attack in oil delta

15 Feb 2006 19:10:11 GMT
Source: Reuters
By Segun Owen
WARRI, Nigeria, Feb 15 (Reuters) – The Nigerian military launched a helicopter gunship attack on targets in the oil-producing Delta state on Wednesday, and militants threatened to shoot down aircraft unless military flights stopped.
The attack was the first major military operation in the Niger Delta since a militant group staged a series of attacks against the oil industry, and hours after British Foreign Minister Jack Straw called on the Nigerian government to improve security in the delta.
Militants from the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta said the attack was against Ijaw communities in the Gbaramatu area of the state, but a Navy source said it was directed against oil barges suspected of being used in the theft of crude oil.
“A military helicopter belonging to the Nigerian Army attacked Ijaw communities in Gbaramatu area of Delta state firing rockets and machine guns at targets on land,” the militants said in an email statement.
The helicopter took off from the Osubi airstrip in Warri, operated by Royal Dutch Shell , which militants said was meant to be a civilian airfield.
“Operators of civilian aircraft in this airfield will do well to advise Shell to desist from the practice of permitting the use of this airfield for military use,” the militants said.
“We are very well capable of shooting down aircraft landing and taking off from this airstrip and may consider doing so should it be discovered that the use of this privately owned civilian airstrip for military operations is not discontinued.”
Industry and government officials estimate that about 100,000 barrels a day, or 5 percent of Nigerian oil output, is stolen by well-connected Nigerian criminal gangs working with international syndicates.
The proceeds often go towards buying arms for gangs in the delta, fuelling a cycle of violence.
A boat taxi operator in Warri town said he thought Wednesday's attack might be directed against people who have opened a hole in a pipeline in that area operated by the state oil company which feeds the Warri refinery.
The 125,000 barrel-a-day refinery has been shut since last month because of the damaged pipeline.
After meeting with top Shell executives in Port Harcourt, at the other end of the delta, Straw said oil theft was going down, but added that more had to be done to reassure the international community and encourage investment in Nigeria. Some areas of the delta were still lawless, he added.
“There is a big security challenge. A lot of effective security enforcement depends very significantly on cooperation that can be achieved at a state level,” Straw said.
“This delta covers a number of states. In some you have good quality leaders, in others less good quality. That is reflected in the security situation in the delta,” he said.
The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, which is fighting for more local control over the oil wealth, cut Nigerian oil output by 10 percent last month with a series of attacks on oil pipelines and plaftorms. They also kidnapped four foreign oil workers, including a Briton, for 19 days.
A military response had been expected because the militants, who are heavily armed and operate in speedboats with military-style efficiency, killed 14 soldiers in one attack on an oil platform on Jan. 13. (Additional reporting by Madeline Chambers in Port Harcourt and Tom Ashby in Lagos)

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