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Petroleum News: Nigerian fuel pipeline blast kills up to 200

Nigerian fuel pipeline blast kills up to 200

Increased security, investigation into May 12 gasoline blast in southwest Nigeria; villagers killed were scavenging for fuel

Dulue Mbachu

Associated Press Writer

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo ordered stepped-up protection for pipelines traversing Africa’s oil giant after a gasoline blast killed up to 200 people, but Nigerians said rampant poverty will continue to drive villagers to tap the pipes and pilfer fuel.

Rescue workers had aimed to finish collecting the estimated 150 to 200 dead for burial in mass graves by sundown May 13 but at least 22 charred bodies floated in the tidal mangrove swamps east of the main city of Lagos — many miles from the May 12 blast site at Ilado village.

Obasanjo described the situation as “grave” and ordered an investigation into the cause of the inferno, Radio Nigeria reported May 13. Obasanjo, on a state visit to Indonesia, called for increased protection of Nigeria’s vast web of pipelines, the radio said.

But Nigerians said little could keep poor villagers from rupturing the pipelines that are ubiquitous across Nigeria’s south, saying the allure of free fuel outweighs the well-known danger.

“This has been going on for a long time, those people were just unlucky they caught fire this time,” said Hakim Bolaji, 32, a boat driver who plies the swamps.

“People are making so much money from selling stolen petrol that I’m sure they’ll come back.”

No sign of sabotage

Obasanjo’s order for greater security around the pipelines comes as militants in the oil region have stepped up attacks on pipelines and other petroleum-industry infrastructure in Africa’s leading crude producer, cutting production by a quarter and sending crude prices soaring on international markets.

But there was no sign that the fire on a ruptured pipeline was sabotage and police officials said they assumed villagers had ruptured it to steal fuel. They said between 150 and 200 people died in the flames when the fuel ignited.

Lagos State Health Commissioner Tola Kasali said that the rescue workers gathering bodies and spraying disinfectant at the blast site were to finish burying the dead May 13 after they interred about 100 corpses on May 12.

Only after all bodies had been buried in mass graves would a definitive death toll be given, he said. But a firm toll seemed increasingly unlikely considering the bodies seen floating May 13 in just one arm of the region’s labyrinth waterways and creeks.

Kasali said May 12 that bodies in the region could pose a health risk to Nigeria’s main city of Lagos, about 30 miles to the west, necessitating the quick and anonymous burial for the dead.

The blaze took place far from the center of the fishing village of Ilado, and it was unclear if there were witnesses. Boatsmen said they heard an explosion before dawn and saw the glow of flames.

Pipeline run by state oil company

The pipeline was run by Nigeria’s state oil company and was used to transport gasoline across the country for national consumption.

The impoverished people of Nigeria often tap pipelines, seeking fuel for cooking or resale on the black market. The highly volatile gasoline can ignite, incinerating those collecting it.

More than 1,000 people in Nigeria have died in recent years when fuel they were pilfering from pipelines caught fire.

In 2004 a pipeline exploded near Lagos as thieves tried to siphon fuel, killing as many as 50 people. A 1998 pipeline blast killed more than 700 in southern Nigeria.

Most of Nigeria’s oil is pumped in the southern Niger Delta region, far from Lagos. Nigeria, which normally pumps 2.5 million barrels of crude per day, is Africa’s largest producer and the fifth-largest source of imports to the United States.

Despite the great wealth of Nigeria’s natural resources, most of the country’s 130 million people remain deeply poor.

This inequity, blamed on official corruption or mismanagement, motivates the militants behind the attacks as well as the villagers’ stealing of fuel they view as their birthright.

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