Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Nigerian militants say seven oil workers seized


LAGOS — Nigeria's main militant group said Tuesday it had seized seven oil workers in a raid on an ExxonMobil facility and threatened a major attack as the military targeted kidnappers' hideouts.

MEND, the militant group that claimed the kidnappings, also said the military fired rockets at one of its camps on Monday, but authorities said only that "mop-up" operations were underway.

The abductions were the latest such incident in recent months in the Niger Delta, the heart of the country's oil industry, and the military warned of action at the weekend, urging residents near militant camps to clear out.

"The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) confirms the attack on the ExxonMobil Ibeno oil facility in Akwa Ibom state... was carried out by its fighters.

"Seven local employees were abducted," it said in a statement in apparent reference to the weekend attack on an offshore platform operated by US oil giant ExxonMobil.

ExxonMobil's Nigerian branch has confirmed one of its offshore facilities "was boarded by unknown armed persons in the evening of Sunday." An oil workers union, PENGASSAN, said eight people were abducted, including seven of its members.

MEND has claimed scores of attacks in the Niger Delta. In its statement on Tuesday, it warned of a "major operation" and claimed one of its camps had come under military fire on Monday.

"In the coming weeks...(MEND) will launch a major operation that will simultaneously affect oil facilities across the Niger Delta," it said.

It said it "wishes to draw the attention of the international community to the indiscriminate bombing and strafing of communities in the Niger Delta and locations in the creeks and swamps suspected of accommodating militia camps by the Nigerian military."

According to the statement, on Monday "the Nigerian army carried out such an attack as described above, in the general (vicinity) of one of our camps in Rivers state in the Niger Delta."

MEND claims to be holding seven foreign oil workers seized in an offshore raid last week and appeared to also make reference to them. They include two Americans, two French, two Indonesians and one Canadian.

The group said it was forced to move foreign hostages after "rocket attacks by the Nigerian military came very close to these individuals."

Nigerian authorities on Tuesday confirmed operations were underway to hunt down kidnappers, but provided few details.

A military and police joint task force "is at the moment engaging in a mop-up operation to look for criminals and those making life and property unsafe in the Niger Delta," said spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Timothy Antigha.

Antigha said the operation would continue "until the desired level of security and peace is achieved in the Niger Delta and the region is rid of criminal and illegal actions by the so-called militants."

He accused them of "acts of terrorism, hostage-taking and illegal boarding of oil platforms and facilities."

Nigerian military chief Air Marshal Oluseyi Petirin at the weekend warned of a clampdown on militant hideouts and told local residents living near illegal camps to move away from the area.

Unrest in the Niger Delta before the government offered an amnesty deal to militants last year had slashed production in one of the world's largest oil exporters.

The amnesty was credited with greatly reducing unrest in the region and oil production has rebounded to an estimated 2.2 million barrels per day, but a new round of attacks has occurred in recent months.

Many observers say the amnesty has failed to address underlying issues of poverty and unemployment in the Niger Delta.

MEND, which claims to be fighting for a fairer distribution of oil revenue, has also been seen as an umbrella organisation for criminal gangs. It is believed to have splintered, particularly over the amnesty.

Tuesday's MEND statement said the government's bid to bring calm to the Niger Delta has amounted to "bribing a few miscreants." Ex-militants have been given stipends in exchange for giving up their arms as part of the amnesty.

President Goodluck Jonathan, who is running in elections set for early next year, is from the Niger Delta and faces pressure to resolve unrest in the region.

MEND also claimed responsibility for twin car bombings on independence day on October 1 that killed at least 12 people, the first such attack in the Nigerian capital Abuja.

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