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IOL ONLINE: Shell takes measures after rebel’s release

June 15 2007 at 12:12PM  
By Estelle Shirbon

Lagos – Royal Dutch Shell tightened security for staff in Nigeria’s anarchic Niger Delta on Friday as a precaution after the release of a prominent rebel leader, security sources said.

Shell told non-essential staff to stay at home and restricted the movement of others because of uncertainty over how Thursday’s court decision to free Mujahid Dokubo-Asari on bail would play out in the lawless delta.

“It’s a precautionary measure, just in case there is any trouble,” said one security expert working for oil majors.

Armed groups in the delta have welcomed the release of Asari, whose detention was one of the factors fuelling an 18-month wave of pipeline bombings and abductions, but the fear is that their celebrations could turn rough.

Asari, a fiery orator, has yet to speak publicly since his release and much will depend on what he says when he returns to the region.

Newly inaugurated President Umaru Yar’Adua has made overtures towards the militants, who interpreted the release of Asari as a political decision to appease them, but despite the budding peace process the situation in the delta is volatile.

About 20 foreign workers are still being held in the creeks and on Tuesday eight people were killed in a gunfight between rebels and troops.

Militants have released 19 hostages since Yar’Adua was sworn in on May 29 and one of the most active groups, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend), has declared a one-month truce while it assesses Yar’Adua’s intentions.

The Mend was behind most of the attacks that have crippled Nigeria’s oil industry since December 2005.

Oil output from Nigeria, the world’s eighth-biggest exporter, is currently down by more than 650 000 barrels per day, roughly a quarter.

The disruption has pushed up international oil prices.

The Mend said on Thursday it was encouraged by Asari’s release, which it saw as a sign that the new government was willing to talk to delta rebels.

Asari, a former militia leader who laid down arms in late 2004, was arrested in September 2005 and charged with treason. His trial has dragged on from one adjournment to the next without tackling a substantive issue.

The Mend and other militias have consistently cited his detention as one of the reasons for their campaign of attacks.

They also demand local control over oil revenues, which they say have been squandered or stolen for the past five decades to the detriment of delta communities who live in poverty with no clean water, electricity, functioning clinics or schools.

But much of the violence in the delta’s maze of creeks and lawless cities is motivated by money.

Abductions for ransom and oil smuggling have become big business and the system thrives because corrupt government officials and security forces are getting a cut of the profits.

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