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Nigerian militia threatens full-scale armed struggle in oil region

AP Worldstream: Nigerian militia threatens “full-scale” armed struggle in oil region

“Donald Boham, a spokesman for Royal Dutch/Shell’s subsidiary, Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Ltd., said “we’re not really worried about the threats. But we have to watch the situation as it develops.”

DULUE MBACHU

Sep 29, 2004

Militiamen trying to wrest control of the oil-rich Niger Delta threatened to launch a “full-scale armed struggle” on petroleum-pumping operations in Africa’s largest crude oil producing nation, urging foreign oil workers to leave the region.

A military spokesman, however, called Tuesday’s threats “empty.” Major oil companies played down the warnings, saying they won’t seriously affect exports and issuing no orders to staff to pull out.

The threats have helped push world oil prices to historic highs of US$50 per barrel.

“Any part of Nigeria, wherever we have the opportunity to strike any target, we will strike,” said militia leader Moujahid Dokubo-Asari, who heads the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force.

Dokubo-Asari, seen as a folk hero by many poor residents who complain they have never shared in the country’s oil wealth, said foreign workers will be considered targets from Oct. 1 _ the 44th anniversary of Nigeria’s independence from Britain.

Dokubo-Asari claims to be fighting for self-determination in the region and greater control over oil resources for more than 8 million Ijaws, the dominant tribe in the southern delta region, which accounts for nearly all of Nigeria’s daily oil exports.

The government dismisses Dokubo-Asari’s group as criminals, accusing them of illegally siphoning oil from pipelines.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States is in close contact with the Nigerian government and American companies that operate in the region.

“We’ve made clear to the Nigerian authorities they have a responsibility to keep the peace in that area, for the sake of the people as well as for the safety of American citizens and property,” he said.

Some Nigerian analysts say the militia could disrupt oil operations, but doesn’t have the power to shut them down.

“I think the militia group is engaging in a bit of psychological warfare by issuing those threats,” said Mike Ikelionwu, an oil expert with NigeriaInvest, a business research firm in Lagos. “It’s certainly beyond (their) capacity to force oil companies to shut down and pull their workers out of the Niger Delta, especially at a time a government offensive has put them to flight.”

Nigeria’s military launched its latest offensive against Dokubo-Asari’s fighters early this month in response to deadly raids in August by the militia into Port Harcourt, the country’s main oil industry center.

Since then, army helicopter gunships and troops in gunboats have raided and bombarded 10 towns and villages considered militia strongholds, resulting in the death of dozens of people, militia leaders say.

Though it is difficult to determine the militia’s strength, Dokubo-Asari claims to command 2,000 fighters and the support of tens of thousands more armed ethnic Ijaw fighters in the region. His group has battled government troops since April.

On Tuesday, military spokesman Col. Ganiyu Adewale dismissed Dokubo-Asari’s latest warnings as an “empty threat.”

“All oil installations are being manned by the armed forces and oil workers are safe,” Adewale said. “The military is there to contain the situation. I foresee no problems at all.”

Nigeria’s senior oil adviser told Dow Jones Newswires he was confident foreign oil firms wouldn’t succumb to threats to halt production.

“We have had these kind of threats before and nothing has happened,” Edmund Dakoru said.

A representative of Eni SpA, Agip’s parent company in Rome, said it had no plans to evacuate staff from Nigeria and said its daily exports of 200,000 barrels would not be affected.

Donald Boham, a spokesman for Royal Dutch/Shell’s subsidiary, Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Ltd., said “we’re not really worried about the threats. But we have to watch the situation as it develops.”

The company said in a statement, however, that it was “taking precautionary measures for the safety of staff” and had ordered their movements curtailed.

It also shut down production at one pumping station that produced 28,000 barrels a day because it could not get staff there to fix a “technical problem.”

“The security situation in the swamps of the eastern area of operation … is still tense, and the risk of water transportation is high,” the statement said.

Shell accounts for roughly half of Nigeria’s daily production of 2.5 million barrels. Nigeria is the world’s seventh-largest exporter and the fifth-biggest source of U.S. oil imports.

Widespread violence in the region often results in severe disruptions to oil operations.

In March 2003, fighting between rival ethnic militia groups in the west of Niger Delta near the oil-port city of Warri _ which drew in government troops _ forced oil companies to shut down 40 percent of Nigeria’s oil exports for several weeks.

Last week, clashes between the government and Dokubo-Asari’s fighters forced Royal Dutch/Shell to evacuate two oil facilities in the delta.

The military has so far been unable to root out the guerrilla fighters, who operate from mangrove-covered hideouts linked by the maze of creeks and waterways that comprise the 70,000 square-kilometer (43,000 square-mile) Niger Delta.

Until April, Dokubo-Asari, 40, was the president of the Ijaw Youth Council, a nonviolent activist group advocating increased autonomy for the oil region.

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