Foreign oil tankers threatened by Nigerian militants

Militants who kidnapped nine foreign oil workers and forced a 20% cut in Nigerian crude exports yesterday vowed to escalate the violence, threatening for the first time to fire rockets at international oil tankers. The military said tankers in Nigerian waters were safe.

The West African nation is reeling from a spate of attacks a day earlier in which militants blasted oil and gas pipelines and sabotaged a key oil loading terminal belonging to Royal Dutch Shell, forcing the company to halt the flow of more than 500,000 barrels a day.

Efie Alari, a self-declared commander of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, told The Associated Press by telephone yesterday that 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,” Alari said. His identity could not be independently verified, but the call came from a number used by the group before.

The military said it would do whatever necessary to ensure tankers remain safe in Nigerian waters.

“I don’t know their capabilities, but we’re not leaving anything to chance,” Maj. Said Hammed, spokesman of the military task force 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. That assurance remains.”

Violence and sabotage of oil operations have been common in the oil-rich Niger Delta for the past 15 years amid demands by the region’s impoverished communities for a greater share of the oil revenue flowing from their land.

The militants, who say they are fighting for the same cause and the freedom of imprisoned ethnic Ijaw leaders, launched a series of pre-dawn attacks on Saturday that shook the nation’s volatile oil industry.

In one assault in the swampy delta’s Forcados estuary, dozens of armed militants seized nine foreigners after storming a barge belonging to the Houston-based oil services company Willbros, which was laying pipeline for Shell.

The hostages include three Americans, two Egyptians, two Thais, one Briton and one Filipino, militants and Willbros officials said.

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

Nigeria is Africa’s leading oil exporter and the United States’ fifth-largest supplier, usually exporting 2.5 million barrels daily.

Hostage takings are also a common occurrence in the volatile delta, but most are released unharmed. Last month, militants held four foreigners for 19 days before releasing them unscathed.

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