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International Herald Tribune: Militants strike oil company properties in southern Nigeria with simultaneous car bombings

The Associated Press: Published: 2006-12-18 08:20:18

PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria: Militants seeking a greater share of oil revenues for their impoverished region detonated two car bombs nearly simultaneously in southern Nigeria on Monday, sending shock waves through a city already reeling from attacks that have pared a quarter of crude production in Africa’s oil giant.

Police official Bassie Inyang said no casualties were reported at either site.

At one, a compound belonging to Italian oil firm Agip, the force of the blast blew out windows of a medical facility and cracked compound walls. Agip said in a statement that the car bomb was parked outside the compound wall and that no injuries were reported. Residents of the Shell compound hit by the other blast said several cars caught fire.

Both blasts occurred in high-security residential areas around lunchtime, when most employees would be at work. Witnesses reported chaos at the scene.

“People were running and screaming,” said George Princewill, a motorbike taxi driver. “We didn’t know what was happening. People were running in all different directions.”

 The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta claimed responsibility in an e-mail to reporters, saying the bombs contained a mix of commercial and military-grade explosives and were triggered by mobile phone. A third attack was aborted as many civilians were nearby, it said.

“That bombing was aborted at the very last minute to prevent loss of innocent lives,” the group said. “We haven’t descended that far into the abyss.”

The group gave warning of the bombing 15 minutes before the two devices detonated almost simultaneously. MEND previously claimed responsibility for a car bombing that killed two people at a military barracks in April, and another that targeted an oil refinery in May. But the simultaneous explosions Monday pointed to a much higher level of coordination than many previous militant groups showed.

MEND’s attacks have already cut one quarter of the normal 2.5 million barrels pumped per day in Africa’s largest producer of crude. Much of the Niger Delta oil-pumping infrastructure is away from highly populated areas like Port Harcourt — making it unlikely Monday’s blast would result in large production cuts. Neither Shell nor Agip officials commented on any production cuts.

Peter Sharwood-Smith, the country operations manager of private security company ArmorGroup Nigeria Ltd., said the attack on residential compounds meant the militants were going after softer targets.

“It is certainly a step up in terms of the violence … although if the (e-mail) is true it seems more of a statement of intent than an attempt to kill people,” he said. “What remains to be seen is if this is going to be a sustained bombing campaign.”

Earlier this month, MEND targeted an export terminal belonging to Agip, taking three Italians and a Lebanese man hostage. The group says the hostages will not be released until Nigerian authorities free Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, a militant leader currently on trial on treason charges, and Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, former governor of a southern state, on trial on money laundering charges.

Over 70 foreigners have been taken by a variety of groups this year. Although most have been released unharmed after a ransom is paid, a British oil worker was killed in crossfire between the militants and the navy last month.

MEND has threatened to carry out further bombings and take more hostages until a greater share of federal oil revenues is directed to oil-producing states. Despite the billions of dollars in oil wealth the Delta produces each year, government corruption and mismanagement has left most of the inhabitants in poverty, living alongside polluted creeks with no access to good roads, regular electricity of fresh water.

Many officials, though, consider MEND a criminal gang bent on extorting the petroleum industry or stealing crude oil for illegal resale.

Associated Press Writer Katharine Houreld in Lagos, Nigeria contributed to this report.

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