Nigeria militants "declare war" after army offensive

  • Gunboats, militants clash in western delta

* Military says intends to flush out criminals

* Main militant group declares all-out war

By Segun Owen

WARRI, Nigeria, May 15 (Reuters) - Nigeria's main militant group declared "all-out war" in the heart of Africa's biggest oil and gas industry on Friday after the security forces used gunboats to try to flush its fighters out of the creeks.

Navy gunboats exchanged fire with militants along Chanomi Creek in Delta state, a region which is home to U.S. energy giant Chevron's <CVX.N> Escravos export terminal and Nigeria's 125,000 barrels per day Warri refinery.

The military said it was carrying out a "cordon-and-search" operation after the hijacking of two oil vessels, attacks on soldiers and threats to oil firms to evacuate their staff in recent days. [ID:nLE629291]

Eighteen Filipinos and four Nigerians were kidnapped from one of the hijacked vessels and are believed to be being held close to where the fighting took place.

"The military taskforce cannot just fold its hands and allow these sorts of barbaric events to continue," military spokesman Colonel Rabe Abubakar told Reuters.

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) said the military had used aircraft during the attack in the Gbaramatu area of Delta state and that women, children and the elderly were among the casualties, a charge Abubakar denied.

It also said one of the hostages had been killed by a stray army bullet, but gave no further details.

"MEND is declaring an all-out war in the region and call upon all men of fighting age to enlist for our freedom," the group said in a statement emailed to media, repeating an ultimatum for oil workers to leave the region by midnight.

MEND has issued such threats several times in the past, most recently in late January when it warned of a "sweeping assault" on the oil and gas industry which never materialised.

Security sources have said they are taking the militant threats seriously but there are no plans to evacuate more staff.

"We are keeping a low profile and hunkering down," one oil industry source said, adding operations were continuing.


Violence in the delta has cut Nigeria's oil output by about a fifth since early 2006, forced foreign firms to remove all but essential employees and eaten into the OPEC member's earnings, exacerbating the impact of the global downturn.

Friday's unrest is the most serious since militants attacked industry sites in what they dubbed a six-day "oil war" eight months ago. The unrest offered some support to oil prices, which were down around $2 at $56.61 a barrel on Friday.

A private security contractor said Friday's fighting was around a camp belonging to militant leader Government Tompolo.

"It is an extremely serious development. There will be a reaction against the oil industry," he said.

One militant commander, Goodwill Tamuno, said communities around Tompolo's camp had also come under attack and that the military was using helicopter gunships.

"Oporoza, Kunukunuma and Kurutie towns in Gbaramatu Kingdom have been invaded ... the fight is ongoing," Tamuno said.

Abubakar said the security forces were trying to rescue hostages from the hijacked vessel and that soldiers had the right to defend themselves if they were attacked.

Prosecutors reduced the charges in the gun-running and treason trial of suspected MEND leader Henry Okah to three counts -- treason, treasonable felony and conspiracy -- from 62 but no plea at the court in Jos was taken. [nL7944684]

(Additional reporting by Austin Ekeinde in Port Harcourt; Shuaibu Mohammed in Jos; Writing by Nick Tattersall; editing by Randy Fabi and Alison Williams)


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