Nigerian villagers' lawsuit could set big oil precedent

A group of 11,000 Nigerians have initiated a court case against the oil giant Shell in pursuit of tens of millions of dollars they believe they are owed in compensation for two oil spills in 2008.

In a case that could set a precedent for big claims against Western oil companies accused of polluting poor countries, the Niger Delta's Bodo community says it is entitled to a giant payout to compensate for spills which they say destroyed their livelihoods.

Shell's Nigerian unit has admitted responsibility for the leaks that devastated the Bodo fishing community, a settlement of 49,000 people in 35 villages, through which a maze of pipelines criss-cross mangrove swamps and creeks.

But the company disagrees with the claimants about how much oil was spilled and how much compensation is due. Talks to resolve the dispute broke down last week, sparking yesterday's proceedings at the High Court in London.

Shell says the two spills totalled about 4,000 barrels of oil while the lawsuit claims the true number is around 500,000 barrels. The company added that local people were responsible for the majority of oil spilled in the area through sabotage and oil theft.

Martyn Day, of the Leigh Day & Co law firm representing the Bodo community, said his clients would be claiming "many millions of dollars" through the High Court. "They made an offer and the community quite rightly said this is ridiculously low," Mr Day said.

Mutiu Sunmonu, managing director of Shell's Nigerian unit, said: "We want speedy resolution of this dispute so we can pay fair compensation".

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