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Nigerian pledge to ‘break will’ of oil rebels

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Nigerian pledge to ‘break will’ of oil rebels

By Matthew Green in Port Harcourt

Published: September 23 2008 19:20 | Last updated: September 23 2008 19:28

A Nigerian general has pledged to “break the will” of armed groups responsible for a week-long campaign of sabotage against the oil industry in the Niger Delta by launching more raids on their hideouts.

The delta witnessed the most intense series of attacks against the oil industry since early 2006 last week when militants strafed army posts and blew up pipelines in retaliation for a raid the military conducted on one of their camps on September 13.

The raid – launched using gunboats and helicopters – appeared to signal a more robust approach by the army in Rivers State, one of the main oil- and gas-producing states in Nigeria, raising fears of a wider conflagration in the region.

But Sarkin-Yaki Bello, a brigadier-general who commands military forces in Rivers, was confident his plans to use growing levels of manpower and mobility to broaden his campaign would succeed in reducing the militants’ ability to strike back.

“That’s my endgame: arrest them, or if that’s not possible kill them, or chase them out of Rivers State,” Gen Bello told the Financial Times. ”What we need is much more intelligence so we can be much more proactive so that we can take the fight to them. We want to know where they are, how many are they, and what they are planning so we can break their will.”

Gen Bello was speaking in Port Harcourt, the Rivers State capital, on Friday, two days before the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend), an umbrella for various factions, declared a temporary halt to its campaign. Contacted by the FT for his response, Gen Bello said the strategy he outlined in the interview remained in force.

Security sources estimated dozens of people were killed during the fighting in Rivers last week, although casualty figures were impossible to verify. The rise in attacks forced Royal Dutch Shell to warn that it might not be able to meet some export commitments. Shell’s facilities in Rivers, in the eastern Niger Delta, have become increasingly important to its overall production in Nigeria following the surge in violence in early 2006 that shut down much of its operations in the western delta.

Umaru Yar’Adua, Nigerian president, signalled his intention to take a more conciliatory approach than his predecessors to ending the insurgency when he came to power in May last year. But as his plan to hold a peace summit for the region foundered, military and political leaders in the energy-exporting states of Rivers, Delta and Bayelsa adopted their own, divergent strategies.

The governors of Bayelsa and Delta have enjoyed far greater calm by seeking dialogue with armed groups. But critics say they have only succeeded in buying a temporary peace by handing out cash to gunmen.

Gen Bello’s hard-line strategy also has its risks. Some residents fear his Joint Task Force could become bogged down in the kind of unwinnable cat-and-mouse game in the creeks experienced during attempts by previous leaders to find a military solution, or worse, unite disparate factions into a common cause against the army.

Officers in the JTF say privately that a temporary increase in attacks of the kind witnessed last week would be a price worth paying to deal a decisive blow.

An internal report prepared in July last year by the commander of military forces in Delta State warned the military risked suffering a defeat that could embolden the militants further if it launched a big offensive against their camps.

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