200 are killed in Nigeria clashes

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SOME OF the worst ethnic violence witnessed in Nigeria was reported yesterday from the country's oil-rich delta. The clashes provoked panic as hundreds of people tried to flee the fighting.

The trouble was concentrated in the oil town of Warri where an estimated 200 people have been killed. Dozens of buildings were set alight and the sound of constant gunfire could be heard. Eyewitnesses said suburbs of the town, a key oil port for Nigeria, resembled a war zone as police and military reinforcements arrived to try to contain the situation.

Multi-national oil companies, which are headquartered in Warri, have pulled thousands of staff out or ordered them not to stray beyond company compounds. A retired employee of Shell was reported to have been burned alive inside his car by youths.

There were growing fears last night that the violence could spark renewed political instability, undermining the authority of the newly-elected President, Olusegun Obasanjo. The already fragile economy could be brought to the point of collapse if the oil industry is further affected by the tension, analysts believe. Nigeria is the world's sixth largest oil exporter.

Land disputes among ethnic groups in Africa's most populous country are at the root of the latest outbreak of trouble. The Isekiris and Urhobos are embroiled in a bitter struggle which shows no sign of abating. Those at the centre of the violence seem impervious to government or army attempts to rein them in.

The inhabitants of the Nigerian delta are among the country's poorest and the tension has been exacerbated by the extreme conditions endured by people who have drawn little or no benefit from the country's oil wealth. Violence spread last Friday from the countryside to Warri following weeks of tension over territorial boundaries and the location of a new local government building.