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Reuters: Tensions back on the rise in Nigeria oil delta

Mon 10 Dec 2007, 14:01 GMT
By Austin Ekeinde

PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria, Dec 10 (Reuters) – A protest outside an oil company compound, a high-profile kidnapping and a troop incursion into a militant stronghold on Monday were all signs of the renewed tension in Nigeria’s oil delta.

Violence had subsided for a few months in the impoverished Niger Delta, which produces about 2.1 million barrels of oil per day, as rebel groups held talks with the government about their demands for local control over oil money and an end to neglect.

Militant attacks on the oil industry in early 2006 shut down a fifth of Nigerian crude output and the new government of President Umaru Yar’Adua, who took office in May this year, promised to address the root causes of the crisis.

But the arrest of a powerful rebel leader in Angola on Sept. 3 and impatience over the slow pace of progress in the talks have gradually rekindled tensions, activists in the region say. One of the main rebel groups attacked an ExxonMobil export terminal on Nov. 12, seizing stocks of arms from guards.

On Monday, hundreds of ethnic Ogoni protesters staged a rally outside the Shell compound in Port Harcourt, the delta’s main city in Rivers state, to air their grievances about what they see as the company’s role in polluting their lands.

The protesters wore traditional mourning attire and carried placards with slogans like “No to Shell! Leave our lands!”

The dispute between Shell and the Ogoni goes back more than a decade and the company has not pumped oil from Ogoni territory since 1993, although the land is still criss-crossed by Shell pipelines and affected by sabotage and oil spills.

The Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People accuses Shell of fuelling the cycle by paying off vandals to stop them from attacking pipelines again. Shell denies this and says it does its best to deal with spills and fires promptly.

MILITARY INCURSION

A short distance away in Okrika, a waterfront community that is the stronghold of militia leader Ateke Tom, troops conducted a house-to-house search for weapons, military sources said.

The incursion into Tom’s territory caused disquiet among other militants who said the authorities were violating the peace process, sources close to militant circles said.

Militias, state governments and the security forces have complex, fluid relationships in the delta because in some cases they benefit from the same rackets, human rights groups say.

Tom and other prominent militia men have at times acted as hired thugs for politicians and at other times fought gunbattles against the security forces and rival gangs. Rivers state has been hard-hit by such peaks of violence over the past two years.

In neighbouring Bayelsa, another core oil-producing state, the father of the deputy governor was abducted on Monday morning by suspected ransom seekers, a government spokesman said.

Kidnappings have been a feature of the crisis in the delta for years, although there have been different phases. In 2006, the rebel Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta abducted dozens of foreign oil workers to press its demands.

Since then, there have been hundreds of copy-cat kidnappings motivated by money. There was a spate of abductions of relatives or children of powerful people in July and August but that trend also seemed to have subsided. (Additional reporting by Estelle Shirbon and Segun James; Editing by Matthew Tostevin)

© Reuters 2007. All Rights Reserved.

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