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Nigerian militants warn oil firms to evacuate staff
Wed May 13, 2009 3:54pm EDT
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By Austin Ekeinde
PORT HARCOURT (Reuters) - Nigeria's main militant group warned oil companies in the Niger Delta to evacuate their staff within 24 hours following heavy clashes with the security forces in southern Delta state on Wednesday.
The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) said two of its camps had come under "unprovoked attack" and that it had sunk two gunboats in retaliation and inflicted several casualties on the Nigerian military.
"All freedom fighters in the Niger Delta have been placed on alert to defend their positions and unleash a horrible toll on the oil industry and the Nigerian economy," the MEND said in a statement.
"Oil companies operating in the region are advised to evacuate their staff within the next 24 hours to avoid them being part of the statistics of an emerging civil war," it said.
MEND has issued such threats several times in the past, most recently in late January when it warned of a "sweeping assault" on the oil and gas industry which never materialized.
But attacks by the group have cut Nigeria's oil output by about a fifth since early 2006, forced foreign firms to remove all but essential staff and eaten into the OPEC member's foreign earnings, exacerbating the impact of the global downturn.
The army shrugged off MEND's threat, saying it would continue its operations in the Niger Delta as usual.
"MEND's rumored threat is faceless and holds no water," said Colonel Rabe Abubakar, spokesman for the joint military taskforce (JTF) in the Niger Delta. "The JTF will continue to carry out its duties no matter what."
The latest fighting centered around a camp belonging to militant leader Government Tompolo who had been involved in negotiations over a possible amnesty with the authorities.
The army said there had been a clash but that the militants were to blame.
"Our men were on routine patrol of the waterways this morning when they were ambushed by some militants. In the shootout some of our men were wounded but their injuries are not serious," Abubakar said.
The apparent targeting of Tompolo could trigger the first major escalation in violence since a six-day "oil war" last September, in which the militants attacked oil sites and forced Royal Dutch Shell to warn on its export obligations.
"This is a major setback," one private security contractor in Nigeria said.
He said the fighting had closed the river between the town of Warri and Escravos, home to an export terminal operated by U.S. firm Chevron, a key route for oil services vessels. Continued...
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