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Reuters: Fighting forces Shell to shut Nigerian oilfield

Fri 6 Oct 2006 15:28:37 BST
(Updates with quotes)

By Tom Ashby

ABUJA, Oct 6 (Reuters) – Gun battles between Nigerian militants and troops in the Niger Delta forced Royal Dutch Shell to shut a 9,000 barrels-a-day oil platform and pull out some staff, company sources said on Friday.

The closure of the Ekulama I flow station in the eastern delta was the first impact on oil output from a surge in violence this week, and adds to almost 500,000 barrels a day shut since February in the western delta.

“The recent attacks in the east around Cawthorne Channel have led to a further shut-in of 9,000 barrels per day,” a Shell source said, asking not to be named.

Fighters with the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) stormed an oil workers’ houseboat at Ekulama on Wednesday in one of two battles with the military in which the militants said 17 soldiers were killed.

Gunfights continued in the area on Thursday and industry sources reported 35 militant speed boats full of fighters cruising around the creeks.

These sources said the militants had been shooting rifles at pipelines, but a MEND spokesman said the facilities were damaged by bullets from a helicopter gunship.

“The helicopter gunship punctured most of the pipelines in several areas causing crude oil and possibly refined products to seep out. That chopper fires .50 calibre rounds,” the MEND spokesman said in an email to Reuters.

REINFORCEMENTS

MEND has already moved about 500 fighters into Rivers State in preparation for more fighting with troops and possible raids on oil facilities in the world’s eighth largest exporter.

The group accused soldiers of razing the Elem-Tombia village on Thursday and threatened reprisals. The army denied the raid.

The Niger Delta, which produces all the OPEC member nation’s crude oil, has a long history of militant attacks on oil facilities and kidnappings of workers, which have sometimes been followed by army raids on villages in the creeks.

Seven foreign oil workers are still missing after they were abducted on Tuesday, a day after at least 10 soldiers were killed in an attack on a Shell oilfield supply convoy.

A diplomat has said the hostages were in good health and their kidnappers had demanded a ransom for their release.

MEND said events on the ground had forced it into deadly firefights with soldiers, ahead of a planned onslaught on the oil industry aimed at halting exports altogether.

It has been threatening all year to halt Nigerian exports completely but has yet to show it can carry out the threat.

The group was behind a wave of attacks on oil installations in February that slashed output. A fifth of Nigeria’s production capacity remains shut down.

Violence in the delta, a wetlands region almost the size of England, is rooted in poverty, corruption and lawlessness. Most inhabitants have seen few benefits from five decades of oil extraction that has damaged their environment.

Resentment towards the oil industry breeds militancy, but the struggle for control of a lucrative oil smuggling business and the lure of ransoms have also contributed to the violence. The lines between militancy, crime and business are blurred.

© Reuters 2006. All Rights Reserved.

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