Militants threaten tankers as hostages seized on oil barge

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The Independent Online

Nigeria is facing a serious escalation in the conflict that has hit the oil-rich but poverty-stricken Niger Delta region, as rebels threatened yesterday to blow up offshore tankers, a day after seizing nine foreign hostages, including a British man.

The warning from the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta came after a series of military-style raids that disabled oil and gas pipelines and sabotaged a key oil loading platform, halting millions of pounds of production.

Shoreline gun-boat attacks have been a key feature of the upsurge in rebel violence but so far raids have focused on damaging pipelines, platforms or kidnapping staff, not firing rockets at the giant oil tankers out to sea.

The fighting in Africa's largest oil exporter has regularly sent prices climbing in global oil markets.

Efie Alari, a self-declared commander of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, said yesterday his group was poised to attack foreign crude oil tankers offshore. "We'll use our rockets on the ships to stop them from taking our oil," Mr Alari said. His identity could not be independently verified, but the call came from a number used by the group before.

The group kidnapped nine foreign oil workers on Saturday, forcing a 20 per cent cutback in shipments from the world's eighth largest oil exporter. It said it could also destroying shipping. "That can easily be achieved by setting the engine room and accommodation space on fire. As long as the integrity of the storage tanks has been compromised, whatever stored products will serve as fuel to ensure a complete destruction," the group said.

Militants in the Delta enjoy widespread support as 20 million people remain rooted in poverty despite the enormous wealth generated in the oil-rich area, putting Nigeria among the leading Opec nations.

The government says the militant movement is a cover for thieves siphoning crude oil on a commercial scale from pipelines across the vast wetlands region. The militants deny this.

The military said it would ensure tankers remain safe in Nigerian waters. "I don't know their capabilities, but we're not leaving anything to chance," Major Said Hammed, the Nigerian Army's spokesman in the Niger Delta, said of militant forces. "The assurance has been given at the highest level of government that oil tankers are safe in Nigerian waters."

Violence has flared since the arrest in September of Moujahid Dokubo-Asari, a militant leader who is awaiting trial on treason charges.

The militants snatched the Briton, three Americans, two Egyptians, two Thais and one Filipino from a barge operated by US services company Willbros during a string of attacks on Saturday which crippled Shell's 380,000-barrel-a-day Forcados loading platform and two pipelines.

Responding to rumours they planned to execute the hostages, militants said in an e-mail to the Associated Press they had not decided what to do with them.