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Reuters: Curfew in Nigerian oil city after gun battles

Fri Aug 17, 2007 10:24AM EDT
By Austin Ekeinde

PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria (Reuters) – The government imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew on Port Harcourt, Nigeria’s main oil city, on Friday after dozens of people were killed in gun battles.

Up to 40 people died in street fighting between troops and heavily armed gangsters on Thursday, local newspapers reported, and residents said they expected the gunmen to return to the sprawling riverside city, which serves as the base for Africa’s largest oil industry.

“I am afraid to go out far from my house,” said Nse Jim, a motorcycle taxi driver.

“Soldiers are everywhere, but if you know these bad boys, they will start trouble again in two or three days.”

The state government said movement would be restricted from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. for one week from Friday in the first instance. A police spokeswoman had earlier wrongly stated the curfew would start at 6 p.m.

Shops reopened on Friday and people and traffic were on the streets, but in smaller numbers than normal.

Port Harcourt is the biggest city in the oil-producing Niger Delta and oil companies including Royal Dutch Shell have offices there. It is also home to two of Nigeria’s four oil refineries.

Oil companies told workers in the city to stay at home, but staffing at oilfields and export terminals in the world’s eighth largest exporter was unaffected, industry officials said.

After six days of gun battles between rival gangs last week, troops launched dawn raids on Thursday using machineguns and rockets on suspected gang hideouts in the city.

Young men armed with assault rifles, dynamite and knives invaded five different districts of the city, including the area around the state government headquarters, and troops fought them off with helicopter gunships.

RETURNING TO NORMAL

Sagir Musa, spokesman for the military task force in the delta, said the situation was returning to normal.

“We are looking at hideouts of militants so, in the event of any crisis, the security forces are in a position to contain it in minimum time,” he said.

“As the situation normalizes we are tactically withdrawing but we will only withdraw completely when the situation is fully normalized.”

Violence surged in the vast wetlands region early last year when militants complaining of poverty and neglect blew up pipelines and kidnapped foreign workers. They demanded more regional control over Africa’s largest oil industry.

The attacks forced thousands of foreign workers to leave the wetlands region, reducing crude output by at least a fifth and raising world oil prices.

The government of President Umaru Yar’Adua, which took office in May, has begun to address some of the militants’ demands but the violence is spiraling out of control.

More than 200 people have been kidnapped in 18 months, mostly for ransom, and armed robberies are on the rise.

The army has blamed two rival militia leaders, Ateke Tom and Soboma George, for the latest fighting.

“What they want is some kind of money from government without working for it. And the Rivers state government has decided for now, even before now, not to give any such money,” said Celestine Omehia, governor of Rivers state, earlier this week.

Human rights activists say that like many militias in the delta, these gangs were at various times sponsored by politicians who used them to rig elections or scare opponents.

(Additional reporting by Tom Ashby in Lagos)

© Reuters 2007. All rights reserved.

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