PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria (Reuters) - Nigerian militants attacked two oil installations in the heaviest fighting in the Niger Delta in two years, security sources said on Tuesday.
The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), responsible for attacks that have cut a fifth of the OPEC member’s output since early 2006, attacked a Royal Dutch Shell oil pipeline and Chevron-operated oilfield.
The oil market, focusing on the impact of the credit crisis on the global economy, has largely ignored the escalation in violence in the world’s eighth largest oil exporter. Prices on Tuesday traded at a seven-month low near $92 a barrel.
Shell confirmed one of its pipelines was sabotaged late Monday at Bakana in Rivers state, while Chevron said its idle Idama flow station was also attacked early Tuesday morning.
Militants have bombed pipelines, platforms, gas plants and oilfields, shutting up to 115,000 barrels per day of oil production in the last four days, government officials said.
Senior oil officials estimated Africa’s top oil producer was currently pumping around 2.1 million bpd.
Lieutenant Colonel Sagir Musa, spokesman for the military task force in Rivers state, said the situation in the delta was under control.
Some security sources in the oil industry estimate more than 100 people may have been killed in recent clashes, which have spread to at least nine villages in Rivers state.
But the military has repeatedly tried to play down the fighting. “There is nothing extraordinary about this. There is no increase in the military presence in the Niger Delta,” said defence spokesman Brigadier-General Mohammed Yusuf.
The army says militants have incurred heavy losses, but not one solider has been killed. MEND says at least 29 people, most of them soldiers, have died in the fighting.
The violence has prompted Shell to reduce the number of employees at some of its Nigerian oilfields. An industry source said nearly 100 staff have been evacuated.
Security sources said militants had kidnapped a few people.
MEND, which says it is fighting for more local control of the impoverished region’s oil wealth, said it was holding 27 oil workers in an undisclosed camp in the delta.
The hostages, including two Britons, two South Africans and a Ukrainian, were kidnapped after their oil supply vessel was hijacked by gunmen in the delta last Tuesday.
MEND said it had rescued the hostages from their initial captors on Friday and were holding them as leverage for the release of suspected militant leader Henry Okah.
Okah, who was arrested in Angola last year and extradited to Nigeria to face trial for gun-running and treason, still commands loyalty from several armed factions in the delta.
MEND said late Monday it would release the two South African hostages after a personal appeal by Okah’s wife.
More than 200 foreigners have been kidnapped in the delta in the last two years. Almost all have been released unharmed.
Additional reporting and writing by Randy Fabi; Editing by Ralph Boulton