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THE NEW YORK TIMES: New Nigeria Military Helicopter Attack in Oil Delta

WARRI, Nigeria (Reuters) – The Nigerian armed forces attacked targets in the Niger Delta by helicopter gunship on Friday and militants fired back with rockets, escalating tensions in the volatile oil-producing region.
Militants and a community leader said the helicopter targeted ethnic Ijaw communities in the Gbaramatu area of Delta state and this followed a similar attack on Wednesday.
“Our units there were authorized to shoot down this craft which they attempted with rockets and machine-gun fire. The chopper immediately abandoned its mission and fled,'' said the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND).
“We cannot at this point be certain if it was hit,'' the militant group added in an e-mail statement.
The joint military taskforce in the area said the helicopter had been targeting barges involved in crude oil theft — a practice known locally as bunkering.
“Militants that were giving protection to these illegal bunkering barges, ostensibly to show their readiness, opened fire on the gunship and this action equally attracted a response,'' the taskforce said in a statement.
But a community leader from the area said the helicopter fired on the three villages of Ukpogbene, Seingbene and Perezouweikoregbene, and local people had fled into the mangrove forest to seek shelter.
“The helicopter came in again today. It bombed our community. We don't know what we have done to them,'' Chief Patrick Bigha told Reuters.
An ethnic Ijaw rights activist with extensive knowledge of militant groups in the Niger Delta said: “This is a long-awaited revenge attack on communities they suspect of harboring militants.''
The attacks on Wednesday and Friday are the first major military operations in the delta since MEND staged a series of attacks against the oil industry last month.
The militants, who are heavily armed and operate in speedboats with military-style efficiency, killed 14 soldiers in one attack on an oil platform on January 13, and a military response had been expected. MEND said the helicopter took off from the Osubi airstrip in the state capital Warri, operated by Royal Dutch Shell, which the militants say is meant to be a civilian airfield.
“Operators of craft using the Shell Osubi airstrip must be warned that this place is now considered a military facility and we will attempt to shoot down any planes landing or taking off from this facility,'' the e-mail statement said.
A Shell spokesman said: “The Osubi airstrip is built and operated for use by the oil industry in Delta state.''
He added that any questions on military operations in the region and “the use of airstrips during such operations'' should be raised with the appropriate authorities.
The militants, who say they are fighting for greater control of oil resources, kidnapped four foreign oil workers for 19 days in January and carried out a series of attacks on oil pipelines and platforms that cut Nigerian oil output by 10 percent.
Militancy in the Niger Delta, a vast region of mangrove swamps and creeks that accounts for almost all of Nigeria's 2.4 million barrels per day of oil, is rooted in the extreme poverty of the majority who live there.
Their resentment at a multibillion-dollar industry that has brought few benefits for them, and a breakdown of law and order, have fueled a cycle of militant attacks, army repression, kidnappings, sabotage and oil theft.

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