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Militants says clashes with Nigerian army mean war

International Herald Tribune

Militants says clashes with Nigerian army mean war

Sunday, September 14, 2008

LAGOS, Nigeria: Militant fighters battled Nigerian troops for a second day Sunday, and the main militant group said the rare clashes represented a state of war in Africa’s biggest crude producer.

The military said its troops engaged militants in fighting in the oil-rich Niger Delta.

The southern region’s main militant group said the clashes represent an oil war. The militants had warned of reprisals after the military attacked their positions on Saturday.

“Following a previous warning that any attack on our positions will be tantamount to a declaration of an oil war, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta has declared an oil war,” said a statement from the group, known by its acronym MEND.

It was unclear if the declaration would have any real effect on the ground in the Niger Delta. Neither side has sought a full-blown civil war, although Nigerian media have reported that some elements in the military are pushing for more-robust attacks on the militants.

MEND is a loose alliance of militant and criminal gangs who steal Nigerian oil for sale overseas. Most fighting is focused on hitting the oil industry, but a full-scale conflict with the military could leave the country’s oil-pumping infrastructure in tatters ? and jeopardize the militants’ own lucrative oil trade.

Analysts have said the militants are more motivated by money than by politics.

But the militants say they want more federally held oil funds for their states, which remain impoverished despite five decades of production in Africa’s oil giant.

On Sunday, militants said they attacked soldiers protecting sites run by Chevron Corp. and Royal Dutch Shell ? for a rare ground battle triggered by an armed forces attack Saturday on a militant base camp. The militants said seven of their fighters died in the Saturday attack.

They said seven kidnapped expatriate workers ? two Britons, two South Africans and a Ukrainian ? had been in the camp when the military attacked. Another 22 Nigerian hostages were also at the base, and some were injured, the militants said, but they did not say if any of the foreigners were hurt.

Lt. Col. Sagir Musa, a spokesman for the military task force charged with calming the Niger Delta, said unknown fighters battled soldiers near two sites operated by Chevron and Shell in Rivers State on Sunday.

A Chevron spokesman said the company was investigating reports of an incident. A Shell spokesman had no immediate comment.

The militants also said they blew up pieces of oil infrastructure, but those claims couldn’t be immediately verified. The oil infrastructure traverses the region and is largely unprotected.

The group warned international oil companies to stay away from the region.

“All international oil and gas loading vessels entering the region are warned to drop anchor in the high sea or divert elsewhere until further notice. Failure to comply is taking a foolhardy risk of attack and destruction of the vessel,” the group said.

The militants said they had attacked a military outpost in recent weeks, killing 29 military personnel in response to alleged killings of civilians. The government denied that any attacks took place. The accounts could not be independently verified.

Large-scale battles between the militants and military are rare. While the military often skirmishes with gunmen during chance boat encounters on the region’s waterways, it has avoided major attacks on militant camps and other permanent positions.

The militants generally avoid the armed forces, sticking to the back creeks of the delta as they roam the region. They frequently go after Nigeria’s largely unguarded oil infrastructure, destroying pipelines and cutting production.

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