YENAGOA Nigerian authorities are to charge 11 Nigerians, 10 Indians, and 2 Ghanaians with oil theft, after naval patrols intercepted two ships carrying oil and refined fuel in the creeks of the Niger Delta, they said on Monday.
Oil theft by armed gangs who hack into pipelines to steal crude and then refine or sell it abroad has become a major security headache for Africa's top oil producer.
It is on the rise, despite a 2009 amnesty that was meant to end the conflict with militants demanding a greater share of Nigeria's oil wealth.
Officials estimate some 180,000 barrels a day go missing out of a total production of two million barrels per day.
Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has put the quantity stolen at more like a fifth of total output while the International Energy Agency says Nigeria loses $7 billion a year to oil theft.
In November, a ship called Mt Akshay run by an Indian shipping company was impounded in the waters of the delta with 158,000 litres of what is suspected to be stolen crude, said Rear Admiral Johnson Olutoyin of the central naval command.
There were 10 Indians and four Nigerians on the ship.
"In the view of the foregoing, the navy HQ has directed that MT Akshay with its cargo and the suspects onboard should be over to the EFCC (Economic and Financial Crimes Commission) for further investigation and prosecution," he told a news conference.
Another boat, the Mt Eve, was intercepted with 75,000 litres of refined fuel aboard a week earlier, he said. Nine Nigerians and two Ghanaians were arrested and will also be charged.
Nigeria, which relies on oil for more than 80 percent of government revenues, has been trying to crack down on oil theft, but the swampy nature of the terrain and complicity of local security forces has hampered efforts.
(Reporting by Tife Owolabi; Writing by Tim Cocks; editing by Jason Neely)