UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
NIGERIA: Obasanjo orders crackdown as delta violence escalates
WARRI, 26 Apr 2004 (IRIN) - President Olusegun Obasanjo has ordered the military to crack down on armed militants in Nigeria's oil-rich Niger Delta after a weekend ambush on an oil company boat killed seven people, including two Americans.
Obasanjo on Sunday ordered troops stationed in the volatile region to arrest the gunmen who attacked a boat carrying contractors working for US oil giant ChevronTexaco and bring them to justice. The official death toll from the attack late on Friday on the Benin River is seven - including two US citizens, two navy guards and three Nigerian oil workers.
Presidential spokeswoman Remi Oyo told reporters Obasanjo had ordered security agencies to "arrest the criminals who will face the full wrath of the law".
Oyo said the government was "determined to not only find lasting solutions to the crisis in the area but also hunt down the perpetrators of this dastardly crime".
ChevronTexaco officials met with military and local government officials in the delta oil town of Warri on Monday to discuss the situation.
Delta State governor James Ibori described the perpetrators of the crime as "bandits", while the commander of the joint military task force in the Niger Delta, Brigadier-General Elias Zamani told reporters that he had dispatched reconnaissance forces to the area.
It remains to be seen how government troops will go about tracking armed militants based in the warren of rivers and creeks that comprise the Niger Delta.
Increasingly well armed and with better knowledge of the terrain than the security forces, the gunmen have grown bolder in recent years. They now frequently taken on military patrols.
The slain oil workers were on an assignment to reopen ChevronTexaco oil facilities abandoned in March 2003 in the wake of fighting between rival Ijaw and Itsekiri ethnic militias near the oil town of Warri.
ChevronTexaco said they have now abandoned plans to reopen the field.
"We continue to be concerned for the safety and security of our people still in the field," said Chuck Taylor a senior ChevronTexaco official. "Until we have a safe and secure environment, we will not work there," he said.
The group was ambushed by gunmen in three boats between ChevronTexaco's Olero Creek and Dibi oil pumping facilities on the Benin River. The dozen oil facilities being inspected were together capable of producing around 140,000 barrels of crude oil a day.
The assailants first asked the group's navy guards to surrender their weapons. When they refused, the gunmen opened fire, according to a ChevronTexaco company statement.
The attack came after rival ethnic Ijaw and Itsekiri militias indicated last week they were abandoning a five-month fragile ceasefire and gearing up for fresh violence.
The two groups have fought bitter battles that have killed hundreds in the past year over claims to land and benefits accruing from oil operations.
Itsekiri militant leaders blame the Ijaw. According to them, ChevronTexaco had begun dealing with Ijaws to accord them "host community status" in areas from where the Itsekiri had been displaced in fighting last year. Host community status affords benefits that include jobs, amenities and other payoffs that the Itsekiri had previously received.
Itsekiri leader Matthew Tsekure said his people had decided to reclaim their villages to thwart the rapprochement between Chevron and Ijaws and claim back their benefits.
"Olero and Dibi are core Itsekiri areas and it has been our prayer that ChevronTexaco returns to these places," Tsekure told IRIN. "This would have enabled us to benefit from whatever security arrangements that would have followed the return," said Tsekure as he explained why the Itsekiri would never carry out such an attack.
However, Ijaw leaders denied responsibility for Friday's ambush and in turn blamed the Itsekiri, who they said had threatened such an attack.
"We gave ChevronTexaco the go-ahead to reopen the oil wells and the Itsekiri had warned they won't take it before this happened," Dan Ekpebide, leader of the Federated Niger Delta Ijaw Communities group, told IRIN.
According to Ekpebide, the Itsekiri staged the attack to scupper the reopening of the oil well and stop his people getting the associated benefits.
Ekpebide noted that the boat driver who was killed in the attack was an Ijaw. He said the Ijaws would seek revenge for that death if the authorities failed to act against the Itsekiri.
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