Posted by AFP on
Tension are mounting in the Nigerian city of Warri as soldiers hunt for a heavily armed militia which has attacked oil facilities and kidnapped four foreign workers.
WARRI - Tension are mounting in the Nigerian city of Warri as soldiers hunt for a heavily armed militia which has attacked oil facilities and kidnapped four foreign workers.
Boat crews and human rights activists said military forces have deployed in strength on the waterways of the Niger Delta south of the city, prompting fears that a bloody crackdown may spark a broader wave of violence in the restive region.
Nigeria is the world's sixth biggest oil exporter, producing 2.6 million barrels per day, and the delta crisis has global economic implications, pushing up crude prices and depressing stocks around the world.
Oil prices jumped more than two dollars in New York on Tuesday, reaching their highest closing price since late September, and in Asia on Wednesday the light sweet crude produced in Nigeria was up a further 39 cents.
On Wall Street on Tuesday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 0.58 percent, mirroring similar falls on exchanges around the world.
The energy giant Shell, thus far the main target of militia attacks, has shut down production of 211,000 barrels per day in the western delta region.
In Warri, however, the more immediate concern is over the prospect of further violence and for the safety of the oil worker hostages - an American, a Briton, a Bulgarian and a Honduran - who have been missing for a week.
Joseph Evah, leader of the Izon (Ijaw) Monitoring Group, an ethnic rights association, said army and naval patrols were preventing access to the creeks of the western delta swamps between Warri and Bayelsa State.
"Soldiers are now moving en masse into the Niger Delta. We have been trying to persuade them to let us have access to the riverine areas, to see what is happening," he said, as military helicopters flew over the city.
Warri residents fear the latest surge in violence could lead to a return to the dark days of 2003, when clashes between soldiers and rival ethnic gangs in and around the city left hundreds dead and thousands homeless.
The city still bears the scars of that conflict - the town centre is dotted with burnt-out buildings and several villages in the oil fields outside town are still abandoned - but a measure of calm has returned.
"This dispute should be sorted out by dialogue, not by fighting. Things have been better here, but there are still no jobs. So many of the expatriates and their oil companies have left," said Ijaw boatman Henry Imhanlenjaye.
The latest violence has caused shock even in the delta, where low-level conflict between security forces, militias and pirate gangs around the oil wells and mangrove swamps leaves hundreds dead every year.
On Sunday morning Victor Ejuk, who works for a catering company contracted to Shell, was sleeping in the workers' camp at Shell's Benisede flowstation on the Bomadi creek when he was woken by gunfire.
"We came running, there was shooting everywhere, the military's houseboat was in flames. The militant youths came into the place, shooting, killing a lot of people, army and civilians," he said.
Ejuk and his surviving colleagues ran into the jungle or dived into the river and hid out until sunrise.
They were evacuated, along with at least ten seriously injured colleagues, to Warri later in the day.
The Nigerian army has refused to say how many of its men died in the assault, although press reports and security sources said that at least 15 soldiers were killed, and many fear there will be a bloody retaliation.
On Tuesday, President Olusegun Obasanjo met top-ranking security chiefs and the delta's political leaders, later announcing that a team had been set up to secure the release of the hostages.
However, the group which claimed responsibility for the attacks, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend), has vowed to continue until its demands are met and threatened to "destroy Nigeria's ability to export oil".
Mend has demanded the release of Ijaw leaders Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, a delta warlord who appeared in court on Tuesday to face treason charges, and Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, a former state governor accused of embezzlement.