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Nigeria army clashes with suspected Bonga attackers

Nigeria army clashes with suspected Bonga attackers

Wed 25 Jun 2008, 9:55 GMT
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By Austin Ekeinde

PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria, June 25 (Reuters) – Nigerian security forces have clashed with militants believed to be responsible for an attack on Royal Dutch Shell’s main offshore Bonga oilfield, a military officer said on Wednesday.

Last Thursday’s attack on Bonga, 120km (75 miles) offshore, forced Shell to stop production there for several days and shocked an industry which had thought such deepwater sites were relatively safe.

Chris Musa, commander of a military taskforce unit in the southern state of Bayelsa, said his soldiers had been carrying out surveillance late on Tuesday on a camp thought to be harbouring the militants when they came under attack.

“Our men were in the area in respect of the order given by the president that the group responsible for the attack on Bonga should be fished out,” Musa told Reuters.

“We had intelligence reports that the camp was responsible for the attack, so we went after them,” he said.

A source close to the militant camp at Ezeitu in Bayelsa said several soldiers had been killed in the gunfight. Musa said the army was still gathering details of what happened.

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) — the main militant group in Nigeria’s oil-producing south — claimed responsibility for the attack. It had previously carried out oil pipeline bombings and kidnapped oil workers onshore.

In the wake of the attack on Bonga, President Umaru Yar’Adua ordered the security forces to bolster security in the Niger Delta, the oil heartland of the world’s eighth biggest exporter, and to hunt down those responsible.

But his administration is also organising a peace summit meant to address the root causes of the unrest, which has cut Nigeria’s oil output by around a fifth in recent years.

Ibrahim Gambari, a former Nigerian foreign minister and special adviser to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed by Yar’Adua to prepare the summit, said on Tuesday he would seek a 90-day truce with the militants as a first step.

He pledged to go into the creeks of the Niger Delta, where five decades of oil extraction by international firms have polluted the land and water, to hold consultations with the militants ahead of the summit, due next month.

MEND announced a unilateral ceasefire on Sunday but has stopped short of agreeing to participate in the peace summit, saying it will only do so if Henry Okah — one of its leaders on trial for treason and gun-running — is allowed to attend.

(Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Matthew Tostevin)

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