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The Guardian: Nigerian militants step up sabotage of oil installations

· Crude price rises as attacks disrupt supply
· Shell evacuates staff after pipeline targeted

Rory Carroll Africa correspondent Larry Elliott
Tuesday February 21, 2006
Militants in the Niger delta mounted fresh attacks on oil installations yesterday, extending a wave of sabotage which has crippled exports from Africa's leading oil producer. The guerrillas seized a Nigerian army post in waterways east of the city of Warri after soldiers fled, allowing them to dynamite a floating barracks block and an oil pipeline operated by Royal Dutch Shell.
A Shell spokeswoman confirmed the oil pipeline attack, and said the boat was abandoned when the attackers blew it up. It was unclear who owned the boat. The Anglo-Dutch multinational, the biggest foreign operator in Nigeria, has evacuated all its facilities in the immediate area, a stretch of creeks and swamps which normally produces 500,000 barrels a day.
The attacks sent oil prices surging in London amid concern that the world's eighth largest producer was facing months of turmoil. Despite reassurances from the International Energy Agency (IEA), threats of further action from the rebels against installations in the Niger delta pushed up the price of a barrel of Brent crude by $1.46 to $61.35 in the City. Geoff Pyne, an independent oil consultant, said: “There is a realisation that no one can be complacent about supplies.” But IEA analyst Harry Tchilinguirian said that high US fuel stocks and refinery maintenance should soften the blow of losing so much Nigerian oil. “Yes, it's a disruption of a sizeable amount. But in the short term we have very heavy inventories and very heavy maintenance in the United States, so you can mitigate some of it,” he said.
Yesterday's violence followed a series of raids at the weekend which damaged several installations and resulted in the kidnap of nine foreign employees of a Shell subsidiary. A spokesman for the militants said their fate had not been decided.
The group of three Americans, two Thais, two Egyptians, a Filipino, and a Briton – John Hudspith – were seized by up to 40 gunmen who stormed a pipe-laying barge. In emails to news agencies, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend) said its goal was to punish oil corporations and the government for siphoning off the region's wealth without returning anything to its impoverished ethnic Ijaw communities; as well as saying the hostages' fate had yet to be decided, the movement also warned that they might end up being killed in crossfire with the army. Government officials say the militants are bandits whose real aim is to sow chaos so they can steal the oil, a practice known as bunkering.
The militants set a target last month of halting a third of Nigeria's 2.5m daily barrels, most of it sweet crude bound for refineries in the US and Europe. If yesterday's attacks are confirmed, that target could be reached soon. The Mend statement said that it overran an army houseboat and an oil pipeline switching station. “Both were destroyed with explosives,” it said. No casualties were reported.
Shell confirmed several flow stations had closed. On Sunday the militants threatened to fire rockets at international oil tankers, the first time such a threat had been made. The military said it could guarantee the security of shipping but admitted it did not know the capability of its foes. Much of their arsenal was supplied by the government in 2003 to help control the delta during elections.
Militant groups in the oil-rich Niger Delta have fought the government and the oil industry for 15 years, demanding a greater share of oil revenues and compensation for environmental damage. They have attacked oil facilities and taken hostages. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta is fighting for control of the area's oil wealth, saying local people have not benefited. In 1995 Ken Saro-Wiwa, a writer and campaigner, was executed. One group has demanded $1.5bn (£860m) from Shell to compensate for pollution. Stealing oil from pipelines has resulted in fatal explosions. Analysts say attacks will halt up to 20% of the delta's crude production this year.

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