Monday, July 13, 2009

Nigeria: MEND Takes Oil War Into Lagos

Nigerian rebels take 'oil war' into Lagos

(AFP) - - Nigerian rebels have taken their battle with the government into the country's main city, targetting an oil tanker loading facility in Lagos harbour in an unprecedented attack on the metropolis.

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) said the attack had left the facility in flames after the sound of an explosion just before midnight on Sunday reverberated across the city of 16 million people.

The government later confirmed the attack which came hours before treason charges against one of MEND's senior leaders were expected to be dropped as part of an amnesty deal.

The MEND campaign against Nigeria's main oil facilities over the past three years have badly hit much needed oil revenues.

MEND said its fighters carried out the "unprecedented attack" on the Atlas Cove Jetty in Lagos harbour on Sunday night. It said in a statement that the "depot and loading tankers moored at the facility are currently on fire".

"We encountered some slight resistance from the Nigerian navy guarding the facility but they were easily over-powered. Over nine may have been injured or killed," said MEND.

Military, police and government spokesmen all confirmed the attack.

"We are aware of the attack on the Atlas Cove Jetty but the details are still sketchy. But we must say that the MEND has exaggerated in its statement," a naval spokesman, Captain Henry Babalola, told AFP.

"We have heard of the attack but we are trying to get facts surrounding it," Lagos State police spokesman, Frank Mba said.

The government has been trying to blunt the rebel campaign with an amnesty deal and treason charges against a top MEND leader, Henry Okah, are expected to be dropped at a court hearing on Monday.

Lawyers for Okah and top government officials agreed on the hearing at a meeting Sunday, Okah's lawyer Femi Falana told AFP.

Okah has detained in September 2007 for gun-running and faces treason charges. His release has been one of the rebels' main demands.

President Umaru Yar'Adua on June 25 declared an unconditional pardon for militants in the Niger Delta, if they "surrender their weapons and renounce militancy." The amnesty offer is vailed until October 4.

Violence in the southern region of the world's eight largest oil exporter has cut output by more than 30 percent over the past three-and-a-half years.

Apart from attacks on oil installations in the Niger Delta, hundreds of oil workers -- foreign and local -- have been kidnapped. Some were held for several months.

The rebels launched their "oil war" in the swamps and creeks of oil-rich southern Nigeria in 2006, demanding that local people get a more equitable share of the oil wealth, but Sunday night's attack marked the first time their campaign had reached Lagos.

MEND said "the problems facing our dear country Nigeria has nothing to do with militant freedom fighters but with the corrupt political leadership and certain arrogant tribes still living on past glory".

The group adopted a pugnacious tone in its Sunday statement, replete with Biblical references.

"The two-pronged approach of combining dialogue and intensifying attacks throughout the course of negotiations, will be the unique characteristics of Moses," MEND said, referring to its latest battles which it has called 'Hurricane Moses.'

State-run Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) has painted a grim picture of the fallout of the violence, saying monthly oil revenue this year dropped to around one billion dollars from an average of 2.2 billion dollars in 2008.

Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, relies on oil for more than 90 percent of its export earnings. Its foreign reserves have plummeted by about 10 billion dollars in six months to 43.19 billion dollars in early June.

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