Thousands of soldiers deployed in Niger Delta

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The Independent Online

Trying to restore order in the volatile, oil-rich Niger Delta, nearly 2,000 soldiers have been deployed through the region, officials said today.

Trying to restore order in the volatile, oil-rich Niger Delta, nearly 2,000 soldiers have been deployed through the region, officials said today.

The Lagos-based Guardian newspaper, citing unidentified sources, said as many as 40 soldiers had been injured in fighting since the soldiers first moved in Friday night. Military officials, while declining to say how many casualties they had suffered, said that report was exaggerated.

It was not clear if the fighting was continuing today.

The soldiers have sealed off an east-west roadway that cuts through the region. They are concentrating their operations on the village of Odi in southern Bayelsa state, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Odi is the base for a group of militant youths who are believed to have killed a dozen policemen over the past two weeks.

Nigerian officials said that if necessary, the military was prepared for a long stay in the Delta.

"They will remain there as long as it takes to restore a semblance of law and order," said John Dara, a senior Defense Ministry official. "It appears from all accounts that the police are unable to cope, so the army has a peacetime responsibility to counter terrorism and secure the nation's vital economic interests."

The deployment comes less than two weeks after President Olusegun Obasanjo warned he would declare a state of emergency in Bayelsa state if law and order was not restored.

Nigeria is the world's sixth largest exporter of oil and earns billions of dollars in petroleum profits every year. The Delta, which remains desperately poor, is regularly rocked by violence among feuding ethnic groups and was neglected by a succession of corrupt military leaders.

Obasanjo, whose election in February ended 15 years of military rule, has vowed to improve the lives of the people of the Delta, but they've seen few changes so far.

Western oil companies, their workers and their installations are also often targets of angry Delta residents, who say their interests are neglected by the government.

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