- The Washington Times - Friday, May 22, 2009

With oil prices at a six-month high and gasoline prices not far behind, energy traders are pointing a finger at rising violence in Nigeria’s ethnically driven civil war.

A wave of attacks on oil wells, platforms and pipelines by rebels in Nigeria’s Niger Delta has left the country’s output at about half its maximum level of 3.2 million barrels a day, the government’s Minister of State for Petroleum Odein Ajumogobia told reporters in the capital, Abuja.

The spike in attacks follows a major military offensive in the resource-rich delta, where ethnic Ijaw militants are fighting for greater autonomy and a bigger share of oil revenues,.

The fighting demonstrates how remote and little-understood struggles can have dramatic effects on Americans’ daily lives. Nigeria is the fifth-largest foreign supplier of oil to the United States, meaning that disruptions there directly affect energy prices here.

JBC Energy, a Vienna, Austria-based firm, says concern over the renewed violence in Nigeria has contributed to a spike to $62 a barrel for oil - a six-month high. In the Washington area, gasoline prices in recent weeks have risen about 25 cents a gallon to an average of$2.30 for regular grade.

The Nigerian oil and gas industry has been operating at reduced capacity since the rebels began their campaign in earnest in 2006, and traders are worried about the potential for increased disruption.

“Over the last several years, [the rebels] have shown they have the capacity to severely disrupt oil production, not just in Delta state but in other states,” Mark Schroeder, director of sub-Saharan analysis at the global security firm Stratfor, told The Washington Times.

Last week, Nigerian government troops launched what they call “Operation Restore Hope,” aimed at rooting out rebel factions that operate under the umbrella of a group called MEND, or Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta.

Local media say it is the federal government’s largest offensive in the area in years.

About 7,000 troops of the country’s Joint Task Force (JTF) are involved, backed by two warships and helicopter gunships, the Nigerian daily newspaper Vanguard reported. Their first target was a militant base known as Camp Five near the Delta state capital of Warri.

In response to the offensive last week, militants have ambushed Nigerian troops, attacked oil vessels, pipelines and a helicopter in Delta state, and have taken nearly two dozen hostages.

Amnesty International said Thursday that it was receiving reports that hundreds of civilians had been killed in the fighting around Camp Five.

“Hundreds of bystanders including women and children are believed to have been killed and injured by the JTF and by the armed groups while shooting at the JTF,” the group said.

A Nigerian military spokesman denied using excessive force and said no civilians have been targeted. “We are applying minimum force,” Col. Rabe Abubakar told the Reuters news agency.

In a statement over the weekend, MEND declared “all-out war” in the Delta region and said it would shoot down helicopters and blockade key channels for oil ships as part of its campaign against Nigeria’s multibillion-dollar oil and gas industry and to get government troops to withdraw.

“The fear is that military raids against these camps will trigger blowback and spread the conflict,” said Mr. Schroeder of Stratfor.

Nigerian President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua met Monday with governors in the region to assess the situation.

“MEND has factions in other states [in the Delta region], and the concern is that if violence spreads, they have the capability to cause severe disruption” to the oil and gas industry, the president said.

Last week, the militants seized a merchant vessel, the Spirit, and an oil service ship near Warri. Twenty-two crew members were taken hostage.

Last year, according to the International Crisis Group, Nigerian coastal waters were second only to those off Somalia in terms of attacks on shipping, and there are fears that the militants might try to emulate the now-notorious pirates who operate off the continent’s opposite coast.

Mr. Schroeder said the militants have concentrated their attacks on oil service vessels plying the Delta’s waterways but that “it’s within their capability” to intensify attacks against merchant shipping offshore.

“They have on occasion carried out attacks far offshore, for instance against oil platforms,” he said.

To guard against such attacks, the Nigerian navy has stepped up surveillance around the Bonga oil field in the Gulf of Guinea, described as the heart of the Nigerian oil industry, the Lagos Guardian reported.

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