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Nigerian militants threaten to halve oil output

Written by: Staff

LAGOS, March 5 (Reuters) Nigerian militants threatened today to halve the country's current oil output by cutting another 1 million barrels a day this month in their campaign to gain more autonomy for the southern delta region.

The militants from the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta are holding two U.S. hostages and one Briton. Their attacks last month reduced output from the world's eighth largest exporter by 455,000 barrels a day, or one fifth.

This lowered output to 2 million barrels a day before the latest threat by the militants, who want more local control of the delta's oil resources.

''God willing we hope to reduce Nigeria's export by a further one million barrels for the month of March,'' the militants said in an email.

Royal Dutch Shell has shut down its oilfields on the western side of the Niger Delta, a vast maze of mangrove-lined creeks in southern Nigeria, after a string of bombings and kidnappings on February 18.

The militants had threatened to shut 30 per cent of exports in February.

''There will be inland operations in March as well as standard creek attacks,'' the militants said.

Most of Nigeria's remaining production comes from the eastern side of the delta where Shell, U.S. giants ExxonMobil and Chevron, Italy's Agip and France's Total operate fields.

Two abandoned oil pipeline junctions operated by Shell in the western delta were attacked by unidentified saboteurs on Saturday, but output was unaffected because the area had already been evacuated, military and industry sources said.

DEMANDS The militants have demanded the release of two ethnic Ijaw leaders, compensation for oil pollution to delta villages and more autonomy over the region's huge oil income.

The Ijaw are the dominant tribe in the delta, where impoverished fishing villages play host to a multi-billion-dollar export industry.

Sabotage, kidnapping and ethnic killings have been common features of the Niger Delta for years, but diplomats say this new movement is better organised, better armed and has a more overtly political agenda than previous such groups.

The government has called them oil thieves, but they have accused government and security officials of being complicit in the trade of stolen oil from Nigeria, worth hundreds of millions of dollars every year.

Analysts say the upsurge in violence is also linked to escalating regional rivalry in Nigeria ahead of elections next year, when one civilian leader is due to hand power to another for the first time in Nigeria's 47 years of independence.

Supporters of President Olusegun Obasanjo are lobbying to amend the constitution and let the former military ruler, an ethnic Yoruba from the south-west, to run for a third term.

This is opposed by many politicians from other geo-political zones in Nigeria, including the delta, who want a stab at power themselves. It is also unpopular in the north, where at least 100 people were killed in rioting last month.

Rampant corruption in government has fuelled distrust and rivalry between tribes and regions in Nigeria, where political office comes with discretionary power over billions of dollars in oil revenue.

Ijaw activists say the attacks will encourage other regions to take their decades-long fight for more autonomy seriously at a time when the constitutional provision on wealth distribution is also under review.

Reuters CH DB2112

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