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Reuters: Nigerian oil delta seethes as militants are buried

Sun 3 Sep 2006 3:54 AM ET
By Estelle Shirbon

OPOROZA, Nigeria, Sept 3 (Reuters) – Masked rebels from Nigeria’s oil producing Niger Delta vowed revenge against the government and oil companies during the weekend funerals in remote mangrove forests of nine militants killed by troops.

Near Oporoza, a village of thatched wooden huts accessible only by boat through a maze of creeks, a dozen gunmen in black balaclavas watched from their speedboats while three white coffins were buried in a freshly cleared patch of jungle.

“We will fight! We will not relent! The struggle will continue. We will not allow peace to reign,” shouted one of the men, who were all dressed in black and red. They fired their automatic rifles in the air and revved their boat engines in a show of anger.

Asked what he was fighting for, the man listed grievances shared by most residents of the delta: oil pumped from their homeland generates enormous wealth, yet they have no drinking water, no electricity, no clinics, no schools, no jobs.

The government and the oil firms are seen as collaborators who make big money from the delta’s oil while neglecting its people. Attacks on the industry, kidnappings of oil workers and theft of crude are all part of the response.

Other factors aggravate the violence. Politicians arm militias to maintain their grip on power and rival gangs fight for control of the lucrative oil smuggling business.

“The money they use for beefing up security, they should use it to develop this area,” said the masked rebel as his boat sped off into the creeks, where impoverished villages lie within easy reach of pipelines and oil wells.

The nine militants who were being buried died on Aug. 20 when troops attacked them as they were travelling in boats with a hostage they had just released from his kidnappers — acting as go-betweens as militants sometimes do in the delta.

The hostage, a Nigerian working for Shell, was also killed.

The security forces expressed regret over the bloodbath, and they allowed the corpses of the nine militants to be displayed publicly at a morgue in the oil city of Warri on Saturday.

From there, youths from their communities loaded the caskets into speedboats and fanned out into the creeks to bury the militants in their respective villages.

Oporoza residents said the masked gunmen at the funeral there were fighters of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), whose attacks on oil facilities this year have shut down a sixth of Nigeria’s production capacity. It was impossible to verify that.

MEND has struck fear into the industry with its sophisticated weaponry and tactics, and it has inspired admiration in many disgruntled youths in the delta.

“MEND is a philosophy that everybody in the Niger Delta understands. It’s a call for self-determination and self-defence,” said Dennis Otuaro, one of the young men at the burial in Oporoza.

“We will take up arms against the oil companies and the federal government so that until we have development and we are seen as equal citizens they should not take our oil.”

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