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Battle with oil thieves in Nigeria

One News (New Zealand)

Nov 7, 2008 10:09 AM 

Gunmen in speedboats trying to secure safe passage for crude oil thieves have killed a civilian during a gunbattle with the Nigerian security forces in the western Niger Delta, the military said.

Around 20 speedboats launched a co-ordinated attack on a military position at Clough Creek in Bayelsa state on Wednesday before being repelled, military spokesman Rabe Abubakar said. He said the civilian was shot by the attackers as they retreated.

There was no independent confirmation.

Militants who say they are fighting for a fairer share of the wealth generated in the Niger Delta, home to Africa’s biggest oil and gas industry, have bombed pipelines and oil platforms in recent years to push their demands.

But the line between militancy and criminality is blurred.

Networks of armed gangs have taken advantage of the breakdown in law and order to steal industrial quantities of crude oil – known locally as “bunkering” – part of an illegal international trade worth millions of dollars a day.

“The attack was aimed at creating a leeway for illegal oil bunkerers to operate,” Abubakar said in a statement.

He said the raid was part of an effort by militants to “derail the peace process and push the military into an unwarranted confrontation”.

It is the first recent skirmish of its kind in the western delta. Most of the instability in recent months has centred on Rivers state, to the east of Bayelsa.

“It’s very unusual,” said Lieutenant Colonel Chris Musa, spokesman for the military taskforce in Bayelsa, adding it showed the fragmented nature of the militant network.

“They have a lot of splinters. They do not have one central control and command,” he added.

The main militant group in the region, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), staged what it called a six-day “oil war” in September, attacking oil installations and forcing Royal Dutch Shell to warn it might not be able to meet all of its export commitments from Nigeria.

But the group has since declared a ceasefire and repeatedly accused the military of trying to provoke it into confrontation.

Attacks by MEND since early 2006 have cut Nigeria’s oil output by around a fifth. The country is currently pumping just under two million barrels per day (bpd), well below its capacity of around 3 million bpd, largely because of the insecurity.

No group has claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s attack.

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