Ogoni villagers sue Shell over spill for $4m

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Villagers in Ogoniland, homeland of the executed Nigerian writer, Ken Saro-Wiwa, are suing Shell for $4m (pounds 2.6m) damages, claiming that crude oil spillage in the area has deprived them of their livelihoods.

Crude oil from a leaking pipeline belonging to Shell has caused extensive environmental damage in the region. The pipeline, which serves one of Shell's five flow stations in Ogoniland, has been leaking since July 1994.

Last week, leaders of seven affected villages began suing Shell in the high court in Port Harcourt. Shell refuses to pay, arguing that the damage was caused by sabotage.

The long-term accumulation of spilled oil - estimated at half a million barrels - affects seven villages, and is killing trees, crops and fish in the area. In October last year the spilled oil went up in flames, burning several square miles of forest.

Oil spills from Shell pipelines are common in Ogoniland and other parts of the oil-rich Niger delta. Environmentalists, including Greenpeace, claim that most of the spills are due to malfunction of equipment or corrosion of the pipeline. Many of Shell's operations and materials in Nigeria are said to be outdated and in poor condition.

In 1993, the Ogonis, led by Saro-Wiwa, campaigned for compensation from Shell for damage caused by the spills and gas flares. They wanted Shell to clean up the environment, and called for reparations of $4bn. Six months later, Shell pulled out of the area, where it had operated since 1958. The oil spills have continued.

The company blames this on vandalism and sabotage. It says it cannot ensure the safety of its facilities, even after closing them down.

Since Shell pulled out, the Ogonis have faced repression by the Nigerian government, which fears that other communities in oil-producing areas could disrupt the company's operations. Shell is alleged to have colluded in the repression.