Oil companies on alert in Nigeria after threat

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LAGOS, Sep 24 (Reuters) Western oil companies reinforced security in Nigeria today after a rebel group threatened to resume attacks on Africa's largest oil industry, but security sources played down the risk of a major disruption.

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) threatened fresh attacks on oil facilities and abductions of foreign workers, a move that would end a four-month ceasefire, after factional leader Henry Okah was arrested in Angola on arms trafficking charges on September 3.

''Everyone is on a heightened state of alert, but my folks tell me he (Okah) has no foot soldiers to stage large-scale attacks,'' a security consultant with a Western oil company said, asking not to be named.

More likely would be a dynamite attack that could be staged by one or two people, he added.

MEND bombed oil facilities and abducted dozens of foreign workers from late 2005 to May this year, when President Umaru Yar'Adua took office promising to solve the crisis.

But the group, which says it is fighting against decades of neglect and marginalisation of Nigeria's oil heartland, has mostly observed a ceasefire since May to allow for talks with the government.

Other armed factions in MEND have joined the peace talks and are now discussing pre-conditions for a formal summit, such as amnesty for rebel leaders and demilitarisation.

Since last year dozens of troops, militants and civilians have been killed, thousands of foreign workers have left and oil output from the world's eighth largest exporter has been cut by a fifth, raising world prices.

SPLIT The MEND split into at least two factions last year and Okah has refused to sign up fully to the peace talks. His associates in the delta's largest city, Port Harcourt, last month engaged rival gangs and troops in street battles.

Okah's wife Azuka today denied reports by some security and government sources that he was released or escaped from the Luanda prison on Friday.

MEND said in an e-mail statement over the weekend that Okah was being framed for involvement in a failed coup attempt in neighbouring Equatorial Guinea after the government failed to make money laundering and arms trafficking charges stick.

The Nigerian and Angolan authorities have not commented on the issue.

Kingsley Kuku, secretary of the government's peace and reconciliation committee, said the MEND's threat was a grave concern for those involved in the peace process.

''We will reach out to leaders of the movement to ensure that talks continue and that they do not resume attacks,'' he said.

''If the arrest upsets the peace process, we will call on the Nigerian government to use its influence so we can continue with our peace process,'' he added.

MEND's main demand is for the delta region to control its oil resources and pay tax to the federal government. But the line between ideological struggle and crime is blurred.

Corrupt officials in the region siphon off millions of dollars destined for basic services and development, and many are also involved in a big trade in crude oil stolen from pipelines crossing the region, civil society groups say.

Reuters GT DB2154

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