Nigeria militants hijack vessels, warn oil workers


Nigerian militants have hijacked two cargo ships in the Niger Delta and given oil companies until tomorrow (Saturday) to evacuate staff, warning they would attack helicopters and planes after the deadline.

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) issued a 24-hour ultimatum on Wednesday for oil workers to leave the region after heavy clashes with the military, but said yesterday some firms had asked they be given more time.

Security sources working in Africa‘s largest oil and gas industry told Reuters they were taking the militant threats seriously, but there were no plans to evacuate staff.

“They’ve said it all before. Nobody ever evacuates, but some companies will increase their alert level,” a private security contractor said.

Global oil markets have largely ignored the news, with prices falling $1.25 on Thursday to $56.77 a barrel. The military has also shrugged off the militant threats, saying it would continue its operations in the Niger Delta as usual.

Military spokesman Colonel Rabe Abubakar said suspected militants hijacked the MV Spirit, a condensate tanker chartered by state oil firm NNPC, while it was sailing to Warri in Delta state on Wednesday, and kidnapped the captain and crew.

He said a second vessel was also seized in the same area.

MEND said one of its affiliate groups seized 15 foreigners from the MV Spirit, but there was no independent confirmation.

“Effective 0000 Hrs on Saturday, May 16, 2009, the entire Niger Delta region will be declared a no-fly zone to helicopters and float planes operating on behalf of oil companies,” it said.

Gunmen shot at a helicopter flying between facilities operated by Italy‘s Agip in February, wounding one passenger, but the aircraft landed safely. MEND did not directly claim responsibility for that attack.

The army and militants routinely give conflicting reports of clashes in the Niger Delta, one of the world’s largest wetlands. Independent confirmation of skirmishes, often centred around militant camps deep in the creeks, is virtually impossible.

MEND said it had destroyed five military gunboats and support vessels in southern Delta state early on Thursday in what it called “Operation Pearl Harbour“, a claim the military

dismissed as propaganda.

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.

Attacks by the group have cut Nigeria‘s output by about a fifth since early 2006, forced foreign firms to remove all but essential staff and eaten into the OPEC member’s foreign earnings, exacerbating the impact of the global downturn.

But security experts say MEND is smarting from a more muscular military stance in the Niger Delta, while oil bunkering — the theft of industrial quantities of crude oil and a major income stream for militant groups and criminal gangs — has become less profitable with lower global energy prices.

MEND launched a series of attacks, which it dubbed a six-day “oil war”, in September and carried out a daring raid on Shell’s Bonga platform, 120 km (75 miles) offshore, last June, forcing the firm to temporarily stop the $3.6 billion site.

But it has failed to carry out any attacks as spectacular as those of early 2006 when it first burst onto the scene, knocking out almost a quarter of Nigerian output in a matter of weeks.

The detention of Henry Okah, accused of being MEND’s main arms supplier and the brains behind its early campaigns, has also weakened the group. Okah’s closed-door trial for treason and gun-running resumed in the central city of Jos today.