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New Attacks on Pipelines in Delta of Nigeria

New Attacks on Pipelines in Delta of Nigeria

Published: September 17, 2008

LAGOS, Nigeria — Fighting between militant groups and the Nigerian military in the oil-rich Niger Delta on Wednesday entered a fifth day in the region’s worst violence in two years, raising fears of an escalation in the unrest that has plagued the area.

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND, the most prominent of the insurgent groups in the region, has claimed responsibility for the daily attacks since Saturday on oil facilities run by various multinational companies. It has also threatened to pursue an “oil war” with continuing attacks on the Nigerian military and on foreign oil companies.

Royal Dutch Shell, the giant Anglo-Dutch multinational, confirmed two attacks on its pipelines Monday but said it could not yet confirm an attack MEND claimed it carried out on a Shell-operated pipeline on Wednesday morning.

Shell has “down-manned facilities in some field locations” and “is concerned about the recent upsurge of attacks on its facilities in Eastern Niger Delta,” a Shell spokeswoman in Nigeria said.

Though kidnappings and attacks on oil installations in the delta have become common over the past two years, the sustained fighting is new and different. It could further jeopardize Nigeria’s oil production, already reduced by as much as a quarter since 2006.

Nigeria, the world’s eighth largest oil exporter, is the United States’ fourth largest supplier of crude oil. Conservative estimates have Nigeria losing as much as 100,000 barrels of oil production a day, but the losses are generally believed to run far higher.

Though the attacks have so far been limited to Rivers State, the regional hub and home to Port Harcourt, the main city in the Niger Delta, MEND has threatened to spread future attacks to neighboring states and even to two major offshore oilfields: Shell’s huge Bonga oil platform and Chevron’s new Agbami installation. Bonga, 75 miles offshore, was attacked in June, in the first assault of its kind.

Particularly ominous is the prospect that previously ragtag militant groups, which often fought among themselves for influence and access to oil theft, have been galvanized into cooperating.

“Most of the boys have come together after the attack Saturday, and you can imagine what will happen if they all come together,” said Wilson Ajuwa, a lawyer for Henry Okah, the MEND leader arrested a year ago and now on trial on charges of gun smuggling and treason. MEND has said it will fight until Mr. Okah is released.

“If they do fight together and move outside Rivers, it would be a significant escalation and a setback for the army and highlight all the problems the government has in trying to deal with it by military means,” Anthony Goldman, an industry analyst, said.

The Rivers State police commissioner, Bala Hassan, added, “We’re being vigilant, and we hope the attacks will subside.”

The fighting follows a government proposal to create a ministry to find lasting solutions to the delta’s problems and a cabinet reshuffle by the Nigerian president, Umaru Yar’Adua. Several top military officials were deposed in that reshuffle, including the former chief of defense staff, who was from the delta region.

“The creation of the new ministry is not a solution,” Mr. Ajuwa said. “Bureaucracy will not help.”

Some analysts said the government’s approach of promising long-term solutions but also sending in its military had provoked the attacks this week.

“These were attempts to come up with more wholesome long-term solutions, but then for those to be followed immediately by an all-out offensive underlines a duplicitous approach by the government in dealing with the situation,” said Rolake Akinola, an analyst with Control Risks, a security firm based in Britain.

Nigeria consistently ranks among the most corrupt countries in the world, and senior officials in the military and the government have been implicated in the siphoning of money from the oil industry.

“There is vacuum created by the lack of legitimacy in the government, and violence typically fills it,” Mr. Goldman said.

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