/ 25 November 2008

Nigerian militant group warns of wider campaign

Nigeria’s main militant group warned on Tuesday it may end a unilateral ceasefire and launch attacks across the Niger Delta in support of activists seeking the removal of a military commander in the oil-producing region.

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend) said it was considering a request from militants in the western part of the delta to join their campaign against the region’s joint military task force (JTF).

Most of Mend’s attacks on the oil industry, which have shut down about a fifth of Nigerian output since early 2006, have focused on Rivers state in the eastern Niger Delta.

Militants from the western state of Delta warned at the weekend that they would interrupt shipping and attack oil and gas facilities run by United States energy firm Chevron unless the region’s military commander, Wuyep Rimtip, was removed.

”Should Mend join the fight, we intend to spread it all over the Niger Delta region so as to jeopardise the 2009 budget projections and cripple the oil-dependent economy,” Mend said in its emailed statement.

A network of armed gangs operate under the Mend franchise in the Niger Delta and the line between militancy and criminality is blurred.

Rimtip has taken a tougher line than his predecessor in fighting bunkering — a multimillion-dollar trade in stolen oil — in the western states of Delta and Bayelsa, whose governments have long preferred negotiating to an overtly military approach.

Security sources say Rimtip has replaced several battalions — including one in the Delta city of Warri and one in Bayelsa’s capital, Yenegoa — whose soldiers were deemed to have become too close to criminals engaged in bunkering.

His men said last week they had repelled an attack by gunmen in speedboats close to the Escravos export terminal operated by Chevron, a raid that Rimtip blamed on oil thieves retaliating for the seizure of a vessel used in the illegal trade. — Reuters