Sun, Feb 26, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Niger Delta rebels ratchet up the pressure


One of the Niger Delta militants holding nine foreign oil workers hostage in Nigeria is shown in this picture taken on Friday.


They have, by all appearances, just a handful of boats, some machine guns and grenade launchers and, perhaps equally important, an e-mail address.

But with just those tools the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta has managed to shut down nearly a fifth of this nation's vast oil production, briefly push global crude oil prices up more than US$1.50 a barrel and throw Nigeria's government into crisis over the group's demand that the oil-rich but squalid region be given a greater share of the wealth it creates.

"They have marginalized us for many years now," shouted a machine-gun-wielding member of the militant group, his face covered in black cloth. "We are taking the bull by the horns now. Niger Delta is ready."

For the last two months the shadowy militant group has mounted attacks on oil facilities and taken more than a dozen foreign oil workers hostage, including some Americans, wreaking havoc on the industry that is the mainstay of Nigeria's economy. All of the hostages taken last month were released after 19 days, but new ones were seized last week.

In e-mail messages sent to the news media, the group says it seeks to liberate the Ijaw people, who make up the bulk of the population here and, the group says, have provided the lifeblood of the Nigerian economy, but with little reward.

The government says the group is made up of oil thieves and criminal gangs seeking to control the lucrative trade in oil stolen from pipelines in the labyrinth of creeks that make up the Niger Delta.

"It is pure criminality," said Information Minister Frank Nweke Jr. "These are thugs who are using the plight of the poor to cover their illegal activities."

Groups of militant youths in the Niger Delta have long used hostage-taking and sabotage to extort money from oil companies and prevent the authorities from stopping oil theft from pipelines, a process known as bunkering.

But the ferocity and frequency of the recent attacks, in which more than a dozen soldiers have been killed, have increased concern. The violence comes as oil prices have spiked and the political climate in Nigeria has deteriorated ahead of its next presidential election, to be held early next year.

Although the attacks have been directed primarily at Royal Dutch Shell, the oldest and largest oil producer in Nigeria, their real target is the government, said Sebastian Spio-Garbrah, an analyst at the Eurasia Group, a private research firm.

On Friday, boatloads of members of the group met with journalists on a creek in the delta to outline their demands and show their strength. They reiterated their insistence that foreign oil companies leave the region and the Nigerian military withdraw. They are also demanding the release of the leader of a militant group and the nation's only Ijaw governor, both of whom are in jail.

Dressed in military fatigues and white T-shirts, dozens of men armed with Kalashnikov machine guns and grenade launchers sat aboard speedboats decked with the white flags of Egbesu, the Ijaw god of warfare. They showed one of the nine hostages they seized last week from a barge operated by an oil company contractor, and said they were prepared to seize more hostages and blow up more oil facilities if their demands were not met.

Efforts to defeat the group militarily have not gone well, and it has managed to carry out several audacious attacks on oil facilities. The government says the group pays for its weapons by stealing oil, but several government officials, including two admirals of the Nigerian navy, have been charged with stealing oil as well.

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